Max Williams, CEO of Oregon Community Foundation gave an inspiring address that you can read in our newsroom (photo: Drew Nasto)

“Building Visionary Communities” by Max Williams

Max Williams, CEO, Oregon Community Foundation delivered the following address on November 13, 2015, at the Restoration Celebration for Restore Oregon.

Max Williams (photo: Drew Nasto)

Max Williams (photo: Drew Nasto)

It’s an honor to be here tonight celebrating Restore Oregon. I think as Oregonians we’ve become hooked on the power of the tiny prefix “re.” Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. For us, those are not guilt-at-the-grocery-store mantras. They are the thoughtful everyday ways we take action to protect and treasure the history and beauty of our beloved state.

Let’s add Restore to that list of “re’s” – and take a moment to appreciate the dedication and success of Restore Oregon. You have done so much to preserve our history. Your efforts give people and towns fresh energy to become even better places to live. What a great mission.

Tonight, I’d like to say a few words about restoration and livability – and about how our work at the Oregon Community Foundation complements that of Restore Oregon.

Everywhere we look, we see intense change in Oregon. Some communities are expanding fast. In some places, the building craze that hit a wall during the recession has restarted with a vengeance.

Our land use policies that place a premium on space impacts how it’s used. It’s a success story for some people. For others, those people who lived in those homes and worked in those buildings, it’s destruction of neighborhoods and displacement.

The Pilot Butte Inn

The Pilot Butte Inn

In our smaller towns and many rural communities, it’s a different risk. Many shops remain shuttered. Small business struggle to survive. Economies based on natural resources continue to struggle. And the prospect for jobs – new jobs, better jobs, more jobs – seems elusive and requires at a minimum a reengineering of rural economies.

Strangely, both of these opposite trends – rapid growth and gradual decline – can put our state’s cultural heritage at risk. When communities expand too fast, historic places get steamrollered in the name of development. When they fall into decline, all available resources must be devoted to fulfilling the basic needs of the people who live there. Preserving important community heritage takes a back seat to the urgency of sustaining the core fabric of communities.

Heritage gets hammered so hard during boom times and bust times. Tonight, we make the case for why it matters.

In 1973, I was ten years old. My father took me downtown and I watched a wrecking ball swing through the Pilot Butte Inn and in a matter of minutes destroy perhaps the most iconic building in Central Oregon. My father, with tears in his eyes, said it was a terrible mistake and one which the town would regret. It was replaced by a hideously ugly bunker-style phone company building, which now has also been razed (perhaps some justice). I would like to think that today it wouldn’t happen—but perhaps I’m naïve. As that ball swung, an important part of Bend’s heritage was lost that day.

Demolition of the Pilot Butte Inn

Demolition of the Pilot Butte Inn

Heritage matters the way your family photo albums matter. It’s the first thing you grab when the house is on fire because you can’t bear to lose it and you know it’s irreplaceable. Heritage matters because it tells our story. It’s where we have been and what we have experienced. It is our sense of home, place and self. When we share our heritage across communities we learn about each other and gain empathy for our neighbors whose life stories are different from our own. And when we preserve our heritage, we create understanding. What we inherit belongs to all of us. Each of us has a stake in it. Our heritage connects us, strengthens our relationships with one another, and that bond builds community.

When you’re out and about Oregon, look around. Our built heritage—our historic theatres, churches, barns, fire stations, bars, courthouses, laundries, mills and shops—these are the visible evidence of our shared story. They are the businesses we started on a shoestring and kept going through cycles of ups and downs; the halls where we put on shows, laughed and learned, argued about the meaning of ideas; the places where we quickly responded to tragedy and slowly struggled to understand it; the job sites where we worked side by side and shared the foibles of our families growing up. They are the pages of our family album.

Visionary communities observe from every direction to create benefits for us all. A visionary community—like ours—looks all around, carefully noticing what’s behind us and thoughtfully anticipating what lies ahead. Why?

The 2015 Restoration Celebration (photo: Drew Nasto)

Urban communities that are growing fast maintain a better sense of balance when they forge a stronger connection to the lived experience of a place. It’s a basic human need that we see all around us these days. People want the direct feel of what’s authentic to offset the rush and anonymity of technology and competition. Farm-to-table. Hand-crafted. Do-it-yourself. Soup night. Vintage furniture. Book club. We crave points of connection with land, food, materials, one another. A heritage building often becomes a beloved gathering place to satisfy these needs and anchor a neighborhood.

Rural communities that preserve their built heritage often spark a lively new sense of identity. Restoration projects generate a pride that helps struggling towns overcome a slump and jump start a more promising chapter. Diverse people come together, breaking down social and political barriers to hash out their collective vision for the restored site.

At Oregon Community Foundation, we’ve seen that manifested as communities cling to and restore important community gathering and performing arts sites—the Liberty Theater in Astoria, the Ross Ragland in Klamath Falls, the Egyptian in Coos Bay, the Tower in Bend, the Criterion in Medford, the Gem in Athena and the Hollywood in Portland—or the Odd Fellows Hall in Clatskanie, that’s now the newly restored Clatskanie Cultural Center. OCF has supported each of these projects and many others as a means of protecting the community photo album and building that deeper sense of community.

Oregonians value preservation. We know it is in our own interest to save, honor and showcase our places and stories. And we know it is our responsibility to support preservation efforts. That’s why we are here tonight.

Madras historian and writer Jerold Ramsey explains that in times of economic and demographic change, preserving our heritage “lets us recognize and celebrate this change while linking it to what came before. And it lets newcomers step into a stream that comes from a long way back and will go a long way forward, giving everyone a sense of place and broader community.”

Visionary communities that choose to keep their shared histories alive stimulate their local economies. That’s because rehabilitating buildings creates more jobs than manufacturing, logging or new construction – it’s an investment that stays within the community. Restored heritage sites rejuvenate main streets, bringing residents together and attracting tourists for dining, shopping and entertainment. OCF has seen that with its own investments in many of these opportunities. Restore Oregon has helped create these resurgences: protecting the past, retaining the character of special places, preserving our legacy.

Oregon has cultivated some great visionary communities and neighborhoods. Magnetic, livable and sustainable, where they’re learning from the past and strengthening their present and future. Towns like Ashland, Sisters, Bend, Astoria and Joseph and neighborhoods like Kenton and St. Johns just to name a few. These places are celebrating their heritage and investing funds and effort to further develop the features that will sustain them in the years ahead.

We need more support for communities like these. Since 1977, Restore Oregon has dedicated itself to preserving our heritage but not everything that’s important or worth preserving is just about economy. Many buildings and sites have intrinsic value.

Petersen Rock Garden

Petersen Rock Garden

Or they might be just downright funky – the essence of our gloriously offbeat Oregon. How many of you know the Peterson Rock Garden in Redmond? As a boy growing up in Bend, that place fascinated me—we took our out-of-town visitors there. When Restore Oregon included it among their Endangered Places of 2011, they earned a special place in my heart. The sense of wonder that drove Rasmus Petersen to build this fantasyland triggered the boggle-eyed curiosity that caused generations of families, including mine, to step on the brakes and marvel. I was relieved to see it on the endangered places list. It deserves preservation. Not because of the quality of Petersen’s sculpture (which is a matter of taste), but because it is the legacy of one of our own: a colorful character, an iconic landmark.

Restore Oregon and OCF are saving not just buildings, but whole communities. Richard Moe, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has said that “There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here or there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.”

We have a broader mandate: to safeguard the heritage of whole Oregon communities. To help them stay in touch with their past even as they create the path to a livable future.

We accomplish this broader charge by investing in diverse, connected projects that address the root causes of problems that are hampering our progress toward a healthy, thriving, sustainable Oregon. We look for solutions that involve and bring together all Oregonians. We’re focusing on high quality education, supportive programs for children and families and the energetic development of Oregon jobs. Our perspective is the entire economic and social health of a community. Why? Because communities need economic and social health to thrive.

Fort Rock Homestead Museum at the Restoration
Celebration (photo: Drew Nasto)

One great example is Wallowa County. Beautiful barns and granges line the valley—visible reminders of its long agricultural history. OCF has contributed to preservation and restoration projects to help these county heritage sites become community gathering points.

But that’s not all. We have also supported initiatives to strengthen the county’s economy more directly. It’s all part of our new, expanded focus, which complements our longstanding commitments to education and the needs of children and families it includes.

Timber mills. Schools. Energy. Watersheds. Social services. The arts. These are visible elements of our daily lives, and vital to our communities’ well-being. But we’re going even further.

OCF believes it is also essential to reclaim community histories that have been hidden or erased by time, neglect, violence, injustice or intolerance. It is essential to Oregon’s healing and future health. Gwen Carr, of the all-volunteer Oregon Black Pioneers, reminds us that “When you leave out information from the historical record, whether you do it intentionally or not, you give an inaccurate picture of how we came to be as a state.”

A visionary community must preserve its physical heritage sites and also unearth its hidden cultural histories. Sometimes, you have to dig them out. Not bricks and beams, for these histories have few tangible remnants, but the passed-down stories, undocumented memories or unnoticed paper records that may be their only artifacts. These need restoration just as buildings do.

That’s why, in Joseph, we supported the Maxville Heritage Center. It’s the last reminder of a railroad logging town, active until the early 1930s, that was home to about 50 African American families – and the only segregated school in Oregon. Today the Center located in Joseph keeps Maxville’s hidden history alive through its exhibits and programs.

Forest Grove's A.T. Smith House

Forest Grove’s A.T. Smith House

That’s why, at Celilo Park, we are supporting the Confluence Project to honor the great, silenced roar of Celilo Falls, another hidden history which was for centuries the center of culture and commerce in the Northwest and one of the most productive fisheries in North America. Maya Lin’s elevated walkway, inspired by traditional fishing platforms, will properly celebrate the people who lived and fished on the Columbia River for generations. As Celilo Village elder Karen Whitford puts it, “The W’yam Indians always say that the Falls is sleeping but the roar of the Falls echoes in our hearts. And to me that walkway would give me the greatest feeling, to walk to see where the Falls is sleeping because the Falls still echoes in our heart and our people.”

And that’s why, in Astoria, we are supporting a Chinese heritage park called the Garden of Surging Waves. The Astoria Chinese community—people who helped put Astoria’s salmon industry on the map in the late 1800s and early 1900s—has been another of our state’s hidden histories. Now their contributions will be recognized in this garden, with its themes of immigrants adapting to new cultures. The garden uses traditional Chinese design elements and expresses Chinese values of education, family, authenticity and resourcefulness.

We at OCF are proud of these important projects. And we’re proud to be here tonight celebrating the work of our partner, Restore Oregon, and are honored to be working beside them to rebuild stories that have been neglected or hidden away.

OCF has partnered with Restore Oregon for many years. Supporting Restore Oregon is one concrete way you can make sure that Oregon’s special places don’t disappear forever—like the Pilot Butte Inn. Keeping them present and alive, so we can touch them and visit them and teach them to our children, means we will be living richer, deeper, more cohesive and inclusive lives.

Mollie Beattie, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told us that “What a state chooses to save is what a state chooses to say about itself.” Tonight, we are saying that Oregon cares about all of our history, visible and hidden, about all of our communities, and about the future prosperity and happiness of our citizens.

That’s the state I want to live in. I hope you will join me, and the Oregon Community Foundation, in celebrating Restore Oregon.

Thank you.

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Statewide Partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation