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Economy | local | Environment

A Long History Of Industry Ends At Willamette Falls, And The Future?

When the Blue Heron Paper Mill closed a year ago February, it ended a century and a half of industry on its site next to Willamette Falls.

Government officials are now hoping to turn the location into a different kind of economic engine, one with unknown risks — and untapped potential.

Wayne De Vore was a pipe fitter for Blue Heron Paper and for the mill companies that came before it. He’s got a white beard, tinted safety goggles, and a blue hard hat that matches his overalls. Now, his job is to monitor safety, as the mill is slowly taken apart.

Photos by Lucila Cejas Epple/OPB News

“Oh, it’s a ghost town here, now. Very, very sad.”

Standing next to a massive, idled machine, De Vore picks up a long, crumpled piece of paper.

“Paper we made on the very last day we ran.”

There’s been industry on the east side of Willamette Falls since before Oregon was a state. But the Blue Heron mill closed more than a year ago, taking 170 mill jobs with it. The site is now in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee, named Peter McKittrick.
“My job, on behalf of the bankruptcy estate, is to return as much money to the creditors as I can, many of which are the former employees here,” McKittrick says, but he is tight-lipped about potential buyers, and what they’re offering.

“It’s a complicated site, and it’s going to take somebody with significant resources and experience to be able to do something. But there is interest.”

“And you would accept, basically, the highest offer?” I asked.

“The highest offer with certainty of closing, correct,” McKittrick said.

So, who has a lot of money and could close with certainty? Metro.

The region’s voters approved a bond measure in 2006 giving Metro millions of dollars to acquire natural areas and open space.

But the old Blue Heron mill isn’t open space. It’s an industrial site. Officials say there are at least two reasons the site is a good fit for the natural areas fund: its location next to Willamette Falls, and its history.

Photos courtesy of Clackamas County Historical Society

Willamette Falls has powered sawmills since before electricity. Then in the 1880’s, the east bank of Willamette Falls provided an electric breakthrough.

George Kramer is a history consultant.

“From this point in Oregon City, electricity was transmitted 12 miles to downtown Portland in June 1889, which is generally recognized as the world’s first long-distance transmission of electricity,” Kramer said.

The original powerhouse became part of the mill operations, and over the years buildings were constructed, demolished, and re-built.

Kramer points out one of the oldest structures. The sun lights up the inside through big glazed windows. Its walls resounded for decades with the constant hum of a vibrating paper machine. Now they echo with the sounds of demolition.

“It’s an historic structure. It was built in 1923, I think.” Almost ninety years later, Kramer says it’s ripe for re-use.

“What do you want to put in it? I don’t know, the partners don’t know. But there’s certainly an opportunity to re-use a building like this.”

None of the partners along for the tour – Metro, Oregon City – look surprised when Kramer estimates the size of the opportunity.

“In a way, you can kind of think the Blue Heron site as the Pearl District with a better view.”

Officials in Oregon City and at Metro say they’re interested in joining with private developers and experts to bring in housing and commercial uses.

But officials are still coming to terms with the site’s problems.

Some issues aren’t that different from what you might face as a homeowner, if the house you bought came with an oddity or two. At Blue Heron, that’s the digester, where wood chips were cooked into paper pulp. It looks like a giant pot.

“It’s an interesting structure, it’s an old structure, the digesters are kind of visually interesting, but what the heck do you do with them?”

But that’s not the site’s only problem. The ground under the Blue Heron site slopes to the river. It feels level under your feet because it’s built on stilts.  In one spot, you can peer into a forty-foot pit.

“The basalt walls of that have been here forever – they’re gorgeous. Whether or not you can build anything on top of them is a structural question that hasn’t been answered. If you took them away, what do you do with the grade underneath it? How do you make sure that there’s access to the river on grade that’s really steep?  So those are all questions that haven’t been answered. This is a really interesting historic artifact, it’s the oldest structure on this site. Its future is why we’re all scratching our heads. We don’t know.”

View Former Blue Heron Paper Company in a larger map

 “I don’t think any of those are in the realm of ‘Well, you wouldn’t do the deal if the answer is ‘x’,” says Jim Desmond with Metro. The regional government is actively investigating the site, in the hope of buying it with bond funds.

“It’s just how the site gets developed later gets influenced by those answers.”

Desmond suspects there’s asbestos on site, but is comfortable experts can deal with. Since there’s more concrete than dirt here, Desmond isn’t too worried about soil contamination. But, Desmond is concerned about the geology.

“The layers, if you will, that were here geologically, that’s where the environmental issues get more complex and we’re trying to ascertain that now.”

Desmond says Metro is hoping to get a rough estimate of remediation costs by November.

Officials, like Oregon City manager, David Frasher, are hoping the economic benefits will far outweigh the costs.

“We don’t have a choice but to make this successful. People have asked me, ‘well, why is the city going to do this?’ Well, it’s here. We can’t pick it up and move it someplace else, and let someone else deal with it. We see it as a tremendous opportunity for our community to rally around,” Frasher said.

Lucila Cejas Epple / OPB

Not everyone is thrilled about new uses for the old mill. Former mill worker Wayne De Vore says he still dreams of running and repairing the old paper machines.

De Vore’s not interested in Oregon City’s dream, of reinventing the plant site as a new Pearl District.

“I would like to see industry here. I’m not real excited about seeing parks, or apartments, or fast-food stores, ‘cause that doesn’t pay the bills for families. I know that industry is out of the question here. I know I’m not going to get that wish, so I guess whatever will happen, will happen.”

De Vore says he’s lost track of many of his co-workers. He says some went back to school. Some found work easily. Others had a much harder time.

Government officials are hoping for a happy ending for the spot  historians call the birthplace of industry in Oregon.

If it goes well, former mill workers like Wayne De Vore could get some money – as creditors in the Blue Heron bankruptcy.