Eugene Must Seek Greatness of Spirit First

Eugene tried on a slogan for itself not very long ago: the greatest city for the arts and outdoors. It didn’t quite stick, except in the craw — especially the word “greatest.” We weren’t even sure how we felt about calling ourselves a city, but it was meant to be aspirational. If Eugene’s then-Cultural Services director Robb Hankins had wanted to be descriptive, he would have proposed “a pretty good community for the arts and outdoors.”

The last part fit when he proposed it. The “city” part fits much better now than it did even a decade ago. But greatness still eludes us, at least when we look in the mirror. Whether Eugene finds a great spirit within itself will matter greatly in 100 years, so it warrants our attention today.

Eugene is busy right now settling its Urban Growth Boundary for the next 20 years. The plan includes urban reserves to give us room for the next 50 years. Eugene’s new city hall designs should be looking ahead 100 years. Choices being made today, this week, this year will impact how people talk about this place a century from now.

This much we know. The southern Willamette Valley will house and feed many more people than it does today. They could be drawn by food security, a temperate climate, industrial innovation, or cultural opportunities. If the Big One happens, the Fern Ridge Reservoir could become our new oceanfront.

We’re shaping and preparing that future today. How close to the center of that future does Eugene intend to be? Would our region rather come to resemble Chicagoland or the Bay Area?

I grew up northwest of Chicago. When people ask me where I’m from, I say Chicago, because Hoffman Estates would mean nothing to them. No one ever debated that Chicago was the nearest meaningful place to us. Residents refer to the greater metropolitan Chicago area as “Chicagoland.” The center was never in doubt.

Contrast that with San Francisco, where Oakland and San Jose preferred not to be subsumed. The Bay Area is today defined more by bridges between places than by any of the places themselves.

Those choices have real consequences. The Bay Area has dozens of different transit agencies, making even a direct commute a nightmare of transfers. Chicagoland has three transit agencies. The same could be said for wastewater treatment, road maintenance, school funding, and on and on. Having a strong and vibrant center allows its surroundings to cohere.

Eugene can’t claim that center for itself. Creswell residents won’t introduce themselves to faraway friends as being “from Eugene” if they don’t like how that sounds. Being big matters less than being great.

It must be said, greatness in this context cannot be claimed; only bestowed. Eugene and its leaders must learn magnanimity. If we don’t develop a “great spirit” of generosity and respect, Eugene will grow to become nothing more than the tallest of the seven dwarfs.

Where do we find that greatness? First, there are certain attitudes to be dug up from their roots. We know bigger isn’t always better, but we’re not often enough the first to say so. It should sound like this:

“We charge for our grocery bags; you don’t. We don’t allow food trucks to do business on our streets; you do. We can learn from each other on a hundred different issues. Because we’re in this valley together.”

The greatness must be inside before it can be seen outside. A very good first step came 20 years ago when Eugene gave control of Glenwood to Springfield. The area’s future looks bright today, thanks to Springfield’s effort.

That gift to Springfield — there was money involved, but it was a pittance — made sense geographically and culturally, but probably not economically. Still, it felt to Mayor Ruth Bascom, City Manager Mike Gleason, and the City Council like it was the right thing to do. When you have a great spirit, that’s often enough.

Eugene will continue to build buildings. If we don’t also build the community’s — the city’s — character and spirit, they won’t matter.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.