Greater Greater Eugene

Big things usually change slowly, except when they don’t. The town of Eugene changed this week. After growing in population, reputation and confidence for decades, it became the city of Eugene. Some will say it happened a while ago. Others will insist it hasn’t happened yet and that its cityhood might still be averted.

A town becomes a city the same way a child becomes an adult. It hasn’t really happened until those around you say it has. And that’s what happened this week, when Lane County’s economic development corporation announced that it had renamed itself Greater Eugene Inc.

“People who are not from here may not know where the Willamette Valley is, or even how to pronounce Willamette,” said board president Mike Eyster. The organization had recently changed its name from Lane Metro Partnership to the Southern Willamette Economic Development Corp.

In retrospect, Eyster admitted, “SWEDCO doesn’t have much of a ring to it. We thought having a word in our title that has some indication of where we are was pretty important.” That word is Eugene.

Springfield Mayor Christine Lundberg agreed with the choice. “You need to have some sort of name recognition,” she said. In the end, whatever notoriety Springfield gleaned from The Simpsons couldn’t compete with what the Oregon Ducks have brought Eugene.

Longtime Springfield mayor Bill Morrisette once floated the idea of merging the two towns into a single Emerald City, but it was greeted with the same enthusiasm as a Hatfield-McCoy wedding.

Eugene’s growth into a city will benefit Springfield, as well as most of the rest of Lane County. Big systems need a strong center of gravity.

Once the central body gains sufficient mass, the orbits of all the others become more stable. Education, employment, entertainment — everything that causes people to move around — begin to cohere. Changes become more predictable, and so more manageable.

It has not been an easy effort. Local football success may have accelerated the process, saving us from an additional decade of angst. During Robb Hankins’ brief tenure as the head of Eugene’s Cultural Services, he lobbied for a rallying slogan. He declared Eugene to be, without a hint of irony, “the world’s greatest city for the arts and outdoors.”

In retrospect, Hankins was being dumb as a fox. The first three words ignited controversy and more than a little embarrassment. Of course we’re not “the world’s greatest” anything, so we toned down the claim to be simply “a great city for the arts and outdoors.”

Arts and outdoors was never a point of controversy, but look what that magician snuck through the middle, right before our eyes! “City.” Belatedly, I say to Hankins, “Bravo.”

I’ve written about the slogan before, arguing that the most important word is “and” because Eugene has bountiful urban and rural recreation choices within its borders. In the state of “OR” Eugene offers “and.”

We knew our claim for recreational greatness would not be challenged, but in a state without a sales tax, you can’t build an economy with good shows and plenty of open space. Parking fees and restaurant tips will never do more than cover basic costs. Incomes are what matter most, and the best way to increase the average wage is to make more jobs available.

That’s where’s Eyster’s organization, and its newly hired director, Ward Wimbish, come into the picture. It will be Wimbish’s job to “sell” the region to companies looking for opportunities to relocate or expand. Referring to the area as “greater Eugene” is better than “southern Willamette” or “Lane metro” simply because people around the world have heard of Eugene. If you haven’t gotten their attention, you can’t build their interest.

The benefits of Wimbish’s success will be spread across the region. Families may find attractive housing in one place, jobs they enjoy in another, with entertainment opportunities in a third. Better jobs across the entire region are welcome, as Eugene becomes the go-to option for any of those three.

What matters most is that now we can all pull in the same direction, hoping for exactly the same outcome: a greater greater Eugene.

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