Growing Pains

Public works shakeup, proposed pool have community clashing

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: March 18. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Around Prineville these days, the word on everyone’s lips is “growth.”

Officials cite planning for it as a top priority. Lifelong residents say they don’t want it to change what is still a small town.

The rapid growth rate of the area in recent years – Crook County has been the fastest-growing county in the state for the last two years – has created controversy in recent months.

A series of high-profile debates about the future of the city has divided residents, often along the lines of older residents versus newer implants.

The question of whether to build a new aquatic center in Prineville has split the community for more than five years, when officials first proposed a facility with three pools and a gymnasium. Voters have now rejected that plan twice, stalling construction even as work continues all over town to accommodate Prineville’s ballooning population.

At the same time, a controversy over the elimination of Public Works Director Jim Mole’s position has roiled the City Council. City officials have said the move was necessary because of the ongoing growth and multimillion-dollar public works projects.

Residents attending recent council meetings have complained that officials are trying to make the city “look like Bend,” and at one meeting several shouted that City Manager Robb Corbett should “go back to Burns,” where he was previously city manager.

At the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, Prineville contractor Dan Johnson linked the bureaucratic changes to the ongoing pool dispute.

“Some people wanted a pool in this town and the people voted it down because we don’t want something that Bend has – we want a simple thing,” Johnson said at the meeting. “We need to get some people in here in the offices in this town that think and don’t go by their own agenda, (but who) want the agenda of the people.”

‘Growing pains’

Ten years ago, Prineville had a population of 6,500. City officials had not yet proposed building a municipal golf course. And the last two of Crook County’s five lumber mills were still in operation.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the city’s population, now at about 10,000, is straining the water supply and sewer system. The downtown core boasts a nearly two-year-old City Hall, and the city’s fringes are sprouting subdivisions. The Ochoco Lumber mill site is now an empty lot awaiting redevelopment, while surrounding businesses include chain stores such as Starbucks, the Dollar Tree and Blockbuster.

But not everyone thinks that the growth is a good thing, and many of those who do, disagree about how to manage it in the next decade.

“The people know that there’s going to be growth, (but) there are different ideas and attitudes about how we should grow,” said City Councilor Steve Uffelman, a 25-year resident and former mayor. “I think that we’re going to see the community change in a lot of ways, and some of them are going to be exciting and fun, and parts of them are going to be pretty frightening because sometimes the tail wags the dog.”

Indeed, officials have been scrambling in the last year to put together the city’s first individual comprehensive plan, a guide for future development. Prineville currently operates under Crook County’s plan, and is one of the few cities in the state without its own comprehensive plan.

Mayor Mike Wendel described the changes and the outcry over Public Works Director Mole’s termination, which resulted in the resignation of Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham, as “growing pains.”

“I understand that we’re going to have those types of issues come up from time to time,” Wendel said. “It doesn’t help anybody at all to throw your arms up and say, ‘This is terrible and we can’t keep going this way.’ Let’s communicate about those issues one day at a time and go forward.”

Wendel, 37, grew up in Prineville and has been on the City Council since 2002. Under his leadership, the council approved such projects as IronHorse, a mixed-use development that has plans for 2,900 additional homes in the city, and drafted a comprehensive plan that encourages the city to grow through similar kinds of “complete neighborhoods,” with homes, shops and businesses within walking distance.

“I think a lot of it is going to be the community will manage itself as far as growth – I don’t think we ever want to have government telling us how we’re going to grow and what we want to look like,” Wendel said.

Local farmer Jim Puckett, 65, said he thinks the growth in the city is inevitable. Puckett has been a vocal participant in the debate over the changes in the Public Works Department.

“It’s not going to be stopped, and this town in the next 20 years is probably going to grow like it has in the last 20 years,” said Puckett, who is originally from Prineville.

Another lifelong resident, Lynda Smith, 64, took out an ad in the city’s biweekly newspaper after the public works department’s restructuring that read, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!”

“I think they could accommodate the growth with the same organization,” Smith said. “The growth really doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t think (Prine-ville’s) going to get that big – of course, if it ended up as big as Bend, it would be maybe something to adjust to.”

Councilor Uffelman said he thinks that, while the council must continue to plan for the future, its first priority should be serving current residents.

“Sometimes, with the dollars that come into a community with development, we get our focus diverted away from that,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the growth and development. We certainly have to pay very close attention to that and how it’s going to affect – positively and negatively – the people in the community.”

Increasing amenities

There is little disagreement about the need to replace the Crook County Parks and Recreation District’s leaky, 54-year-old outdoor pool. But many opponents of the new proposal say that, while they would support a plan to build one pool, the current plans are too fancy and elaborate for “our little town.”

Donna White, the chairwoman of the pool political action committee, said she thinks the project’s supporters come from all areas of Prineville life.

“It just crosses all genders, all age groups, every socioeconomic level, no matter who you talk to,” White said. “I think that’s probably one of the reasons that we are so for this pool is because it does have such a broad scope – it will serve to entertain and provide recreation for every age group and every demographic.”

White moved to Prineville from Portland about 10 years ago, and she said she thinks many of the people who have arrived in that time period are used to more amenities than the city currently offers.

“I certainly believe there’s an expectation of a certain quality of life,” she said. “But I really don’t also believe that the people that are voting for the pool are new to the area because there’s really a kind of community pride in Prineville (from) the people who have been here forever.”

Charles McDermott, who moved to Prineville from Portland about three years ago, said he is a strong supporter of building the new facility.

“If (people) do want a swim center they need to build it now because later on costs are going to be higher, so it makes sense to bite the bullet now,” said McDermott, 70, whose wife is originally from Prineville.

Now, the Parks and Recreation District has put the bond question back on the May ballot. Officials decided to knock a multipurpose gymnasium off the plans, dropping the price tag by $1.3 million. If approved, the facility would have two indoor pools and one outdoor pool at a cost of $10.7 million, which some opponents say is still too much.

“I tried to persuade anybody that would listen to me not to vote for it,” said Marvin Akre, 68, who has lived in Prineville for more than 30 years. “It’s too much for Prineville, I think. You know, they need to step back, and we need a new pool, there’s absolutely no doubt that Prineville needs a new pool, but they don’t need all that.”

Akre said he is worried that growth – as seen in developments such as a large swim center – will change the city’s atmosphere.

“I’m going to hate to see it,” he said. “I’m not pleased that we’re growing like we are – a little growth is fine, but it’s getting out of hand.”

Reshaping the economy

Prineville’s story is a familiar one for longtime residents of Central Oregon, as similar events have unfolded in Bend and many former mining and timber towns around the West.

The population boom Bend experienced in the last decade was fueled in part by its relatively low housing prices, good weather and abundance of outdoor activities – characteristics that Prineville shares, said Bruce Weber, director of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University.

“Rural towns generally that are growing are places that have amenities – that’s almost always the case – so if you live in an area that’s lovely and not terribly expensive, you can expect retirees to move in and drive up housing prices and bring in new money and displace old ways of doing things,” Weber said. “That’s happened all over the West, and Bend is one of the places that’s looked to as an exemplar of that story.”

Weber called these types of changes “bittersweet,” since some of the new residents may not have as much attachment to the community. But he added that he does not think it is likely that Prineville will grow to the extent that Bend has.

“I don’t see right now how Prineville should be worried that it will become another Bend” because it is farther from main highways and has the historic presence of Les Schwab Tire Companies, he said. “I think it certainly can worry that it will become a suburb of Bend, which it already is in many ways.”

Like other former mill towns, Prineville is still rebounding from the economic hit it took when the lumber industry collapsed. Its final two mills, Ochoco Lumber and Crown Pacific, shut their doors in 2001.

John Shelk, the managing director of Ochoco Lumber, said that even can be seen as the starting point for many of the recent economic and social changes.

“If you’re out on the highway at 7:30 in the morning from Prineville to Redmond, you’ll see a lot of cars leaving Prineville and going to either Redmond or Bend, so there are people that have lost their jobs in Prineville, continue to maintain residences in Prineville, and yet have to commute to work every day,” Shelk said.

Crook County Judge Scott Cooper noted that having a lifelong career working in the mills is not an option anymore, a phenomenon that may be exacerbated when Les Schwab Tire Companies moves its corporate headquarters to Bend as planned.

“We’ve reached the point now where our young people really have to leave in order to get started on their careers, and then what we hope for is to be able to find a way to bring them back,” Cooper said. “People lament the fact that there’s not an entry-level place in a meaningful career for their kids.”

The county, city and Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce are working with Economic Development for Central Oregon in the hopes of creating a new economic development position for the area. This person would be tasked with bringing more industrial and commercial jobs to the area and increasing capital investment.

Ochoco Lumber also has plans to redevelop its 70-acre mill site – just across the street from Prineville’s first Starbucks – as a mixed-use project. The mixed-use model – combining houses, businesses, parks and schools in a “complete” neighborhood – is one that Prineville planning officials have promoted in the draft of its first comprehensive plan, which the City Council expects to approve soon. It is also similar to some well-known projects in Bend, such as NorthWest Crossing.

“Any time you can mix residential with some light commercial and retail, you have the opportunity to reduce automobile traffic and to reduce the attendant congestion,” Shelk said. “It’s a model that we take from an earlier time in our country and from some of the larger cities where a lot of people don’t even own automobiles and instead take public transportation to work.”

Doug Breese, a fourth-generation Prineville farmer, said his business was affected when Ochoco Lumber closed because he used to rent grassland from the company. Breese, 64, said that there are benefits to the city’s expansion, but he added that he sees conflicts between the newer and older residents.

“You see that every time we have a ballot on anything – you have the new era of people that, you know, they want a swimming pool, they want more community activities of some kind,” he said. “Any time you talk about anything like that, well, generally the people on the fixed incomes, they get pretty fired up and they want to get into their cars and drive downtown and make everybody go home, so yes, you do have a lot of tension that way.”

But Doug Dawson, who moved from Brentwood, Calif., with his wife last June, said they have found Prineville welcoming. Dawson lives in another new development on the north end of town, Ochoco Pointe.

“You’re talking to two people that came from a large metropolitan area – for us this is a small, small town, and it has a great small-town feeling, and what I mean by that is people are very friendly,” Dawson said.

While Prineville is still small – roughly at Bend’s 1970 figure – it is already gearing up for several projects, including IronHorse and the mill redevelopment. In addition, the city is working on a planned street reroute to create a highway bypass and downtown roundabouts. Local leaders say that planning for growth should focus on improving the city’s infrastructure and trying to attract a mix of commercial and industrial businesses to the city to balance out the residential developments.

But both old and new residents want to make sure that the city does not lose its “small-town atmosphere” through too much traffic, a commuter- and service-based economy and unaffordable house prices.

“We have the standard mix of response to growth,” said Cooper, the county judge. “The ones that I find strangest are the people – it’s not so much the old-timers, they pretty well understand change happens – it’s the newcomers who recently got here who are now complaining about the newer comers. Those baffle me, the ‘I’m the last one in slam the gates behind me.'”

Shelk at Ochoco Lumber said that the changes he sees in Prineville’s culture continue to be gradual.

“I suspect that there’s some people that resent the population increase and the traffic, but I think that there’s certainly more people that … appreciate the tax base that’s coming with additional housing or commercial or retail development and the benefits that it will have,” Shelk said.

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