United in Diversity, United in its Future

City of Woodburn, OR

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Cultural identity and a sense of place serve as a pivotal part of how communities are perceived, and – perhaps more importantly – how these communities move forward with a unified clear vision for the future. It is this sense of identity that facilitates common values, traditions and economic and social wellbeing.
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Woodburn, Oregon, the ‘City of Unity’ as it is affectionately referred, exemplifies what cultural diversity can and does contribute to a community if it is encouraged, embraced and nurtured throughout all development processes. It is not an easy task, but it is one that Woodburn has at its core, and by all indications, the city is poised for growth.

Founded in 1889, Woodburn is surrounded by rich farmlands in the northern end of the Willamette Valley in Marion County. Woodburn is conveniently located eighteen miles north of the state capital of Salem and thirty miles south of Portland, the state’s largest metropolis. With a population of close to 25,000, the city is consistently growing with a rich diversification of ethnicities and accompanying cultures which include people of Anglo, Hispanic, Mennonite and Russian ancestry.

The city was born out of the vision of Jesse H. Settlemier, a pioneer nurseryman who was the town’s first mayor who eventually established his nursery business to be the largest in the state. Woodburn, which is part of the Salem, Oregon Metropolitan Statistical Area, has grown tremendously in the past 127 years with a population growth of sixty percent since the early 1970s. With this growth come new challenges to be addressed along with a better understanding of the city’s place in the state.

The Woodburn Economic Development Department, established in 2015, will provide a clearer framework from which many important decisions and actionable plans will be implemented. The city’s recent target industry analysis has proven instrumental in discerning land use before investments are made and what policy changes are required in regulations governing land use within these development areas.

Several key target industries have been identified including production technology and machinery and plastics, metal products and food processing manufacturing. “We’re well-connected with our traded sector industry,” shares Jamie Johnk, Woodburn’s economic development director. “We have a workforce sustaining those industries, and we see them continuing to grow.”

This analysis has also determined that there is substantial growth to be found in emerging sectors including apparel and automotive transportation equipment manufacturing, distribution, e-commerce and information technology.

Such industries can take advantage of Woodburn’s excellent location and its proximity to the Interstate 5 which runs through the city and is a major trade corridor running north to south providing access north to Canada and south to Mexico. In fact I-5 is the third-most traveled truck corridor in the nation with one-quarter of national imports and exports using this corridor annually.

Highways 219 north and Highway 214 east merge at the I-5 interchange, which recently underwent $80 million in upgrades. This work, “really addressed a lot of bottlenecks and some dangerous situations with traffic backing up on the highway,” says Mayor Kathryn Figley. “The nice thing is, at this point, we have a well-functioning interchange with some extra capacity.”

Additionally, Highway 99 East, which serves as a gateway to the city’s downtown, is identified in the city’s 99E Corridor Plan for redevelopment which will include retail, commercial office space, light manufacturing and multifamily housing. This corridor recently underwent upgrades to improve the turn radius for trucks entering and leaving distribution centers so, “that’s a good thing too,” adds the mayor.

She also explains that with a new industrial area along the I-5, “we see an opportunity for distribution warehousing. We do have a couple of industries out there now that are distribution warehousing oriented … we see a lot of growth in that realm.”

Woodburn’s I-5 Logistics Center project by Specht Development, Inc. will consist of a 108-acre logistics park which can provide up to two million square feet of modern logistics facilities with immediate I-5 access. “The developer is someone with a long track record of industrial park development, really, throughout northwest Oregon and southwest Washington,” adds Mayor Figley.

Woodburn is also on a main Union Pacific rail line and has a short line that serves industrial zoned property in the southeast quadrant of the city. Although the city does not have an airport, the Aurora State Airport is only twelve miles to the north and has the capacity for freight shipping and commercial flights. “It’s a well functioning airport,” she adds.

In additional to the Aurora Airport, the Salem Municipal Airport (McNary Field Airport) is twenty-one miles south from Woodburn in Salem and the Portland International Airport is forty-three miles north of the city. Both are easily reached via I-5.

The boundary of the Woodburn Enterprise Zone, a state initiated incentive program, was recently renamed the Woodland-Gervais Enterprise Zone to include the city limits of nearby Gervais (three miles south) to enhance the economic opportunities of the two cities.

The enterprise zone abates property taxes for three years for eligible businesses. To participate in the program, there are a number of eligibility criteria that must be met, such as the amount of new investment, number of new jobs being created, as well as the wages paid. “It’s dependent on the creation of jobs that pay well enough compared with the average wage in the community to be worthwhile,” explains Mayor Figley, while Jamie adds that, “We have had a couple of existing manufacturers use the program for their expansion.” The enterprise zone is not applicable to commercial development.

In 2015, Woodburn was approved by the state for an urban growth boundary amendment to include the southwest industrial reserve area, comprised of over 190 acres of proposed industrial space just southwest of the city. Specht Development has an option to purchase 108 acres in the reserve area which, after annexation, would become part of the city limits in 2017. Woodburn’s City Council will have to make some policy decisions about which programs may be considered for the area based on the type of jobs and wages with development. “There are some policy decisions coming up on that,” affirms Mayor Figley.

Mayor Figley shared that the Urban Renewal Building Improvements Grant and Loan programs have been successful in Woodburn’s downtown revitalization efforts and that, “we’re looking at cash flow from the Urban Renewal Agency to see what type of borrowing we can sustain … Of course, we’re looking at higher profile projects, and that’s based totally on the increment.”

Partnerships play a vital role in Woodburn’s vision. The City has close working partnerships with state, local and regional organizations/agencies such as those with Business Oregon, Strategic Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR), Woodburn Area Chamber of Commerce, Woodburn Downtown Association (WDA), Marion County, Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments (MWVCOG), and numerous more.

“I think we want what’s best for Woodburn,” says Mayor Figley. “Lots of our residents work in greater Portland. We’d like more of them to work locally. We certainly also employ a lot of residents of the greater Salem area … so we want to improve opportunities.”

She says that SEDCOR recognizes that all groups in the partnership are part of the same team and, “I think the area county has a lot to offer as far as a more positive business model – a different, maybe, philosophy of what government should or shouldn’t be doing – more cooperative with business overall.” Woodburn believes in the power of networking and, “that’s one of my top priorities.”

Jamie concurs by noting that, “It’s important to be connected and engaged in these groups from an economic development perspective, as well as the broader community development position that the mayor represents.”

The Academy of International Studies (AIS) is part of Woodburn High School. The school is one of five high schools in the city offering students an opportunity to take international baccalaureate courses and is proud to be a part of a multilingual school district in which almost seventy-five percent of students are of Hispanic or Russian ancestry.

Chemeketa Community College, in the city’s downtown, works in collaboration with Woodburn’s chamber of commerce and a number of agencies and non-profits in providing continuing education, English language studies and employment readiness. Chemeketa has grown substantially in the past ten to fifteen years. Mayor Figley states that “it’s a very nimble institution as far as working with employers on targeted education, but it’s also just a great first two-year school program … Chemeketa, for years, has been really creative and willing to work with employers. That’s one thing we’ve been grateful for.”

Opened in 2012, the Woodburn campus of Pacific University offers students a concentration in STEM subjects and provides two degree programs. Pacific University came to Woodburn to, “help train STEM teachers and to give them the opportunity to teach in a very diverse community like ours,” explains Mayor Figley. In total, thirty-five colleges are within fifty miles of Woodburn.

Woodburn has more affordable living costs than Portland or Salem, and, “we’re younger than most communities in Oregon. I think that’s attractive to some employers,” she adds. At least one-third of the population is nineteen or under.

Oregon has no sales tax or value-added tax (VAT), making Woodburn extremely attractive to tourists who number close to five million annually. Many are attracted to the shopping experience of Woodburn Premium Outlets®, just off the I-5, which opened in 1999, and features 110 stores.

“We’re extremely attractive to people from all up and down the West Coast,” says Mayor Figley. “We have tourists coming down from British Columbia by the busloads. Surprisingly, we get a lot of Europeans who are traveling in the country and come here to do some serious shopping.”

Being centrally located, Woodburn holds its own little niche for history tourism. For the adventurer, Woodburn is only forty minutes from Silver Falls State Park and an hour and a half from Mount Hood National Forest – a hiking, camping, skiing, fishing and boating paradise. The Pacific Ocean and beaches are also only an hour away.

With such a rich culture and a proactive approach to sustainable growth in its clear vision for the future, Woodburn, Oregon will continue to be, “welcoming, down to earth and not like any place else you’ve ever been,” says Mayor Figley. “In our current political climate, I want to say that the America of the future is going to look like us. And if it looks like us, it’s a great thing.”

July 27, 2017, 8:29 AM EDT

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