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Growth: Not How But Who

January 24th, 2006 by dk

Much ink is being spilled about whether we should attract more people to live here or start buying residents one-way bus tickets to anywhere else. It seems Tom McCall’s new wine from the 1970s is now turning to vinegar. “Come love this place, then leave” has become “Please leave this place we love.”

It’s a no-win scenario for those of us who are here. We can make sure that nothing good comes of this place so we won’t be asked to share it. Or we can build it into someplace great, knowing that such secrets can’t be kept. Anything we do to make our home better will make it more crowded, if not on this side of some dotted line, then just across it.

Towns we often compare to ours have Mother Nature as their urban planner-in-chief. Boulder, Colorado has mountains. Santa Cruz, California has ocean. Burlington, Vermont has slate beneath its soil. We’ve got some carefully constructed dotted lines.

Consider our misfortune. Only two cities in America have more sunny days than we do, but our summers are nicer than San Diego’s and our winters are nicer than Spokane’s. Our plentiful rain gives us more shades of green than a Crayola bonus-pack, but most of that rain comes in winter and at night, when we weren’t going outside anyway. We have what has been called one of the top 25 concert halls in the world. We have more art than almost any other town our size. We have a river flowing through our midsection and so many parks and open spaces, we barely notice them.

We have a university with all the hidden gems that dot its campus and its calendar. We’re close to oceans, mountains, deserts, and plains. Everything there is to love about a big city is up the road; small town America survives all around us.

We produce some of the best wine, bread, coffee, and chocolate in America. Word gets out. People come here for their own piece of paradise. They don’t always leave.

What to do? Beg them to stay away? That’ll only make them want it more. Give them the cold shoulder when they arrive? We don’t have it in us. Call them names and insist it was all better before they got here? It just somehow adds to the charm.

No, growth is inevitable. And planning for it may not be enough. We plan to manage growth on the “Field of Dreams” model: build it and they will come. We’d be smarter to recruit the people we want for our future neighbors.

No one disputes that the people who love this place most are those who were raised here. But those who love it best came from larger cities.

People who endured long commutes, concrete jungles, violent crime, or unclean air — they prize this place for all it doesn’t have. At the same time, they know how diversity, culture, nightlife and commerce can enrich a community. If we can have both, that’s as close to having it all as anyone dare hope for.

Those who come here from smaller towns often want to freeze us where we are or return us to where we’ve been. Or, worse, they want to add the nightlife and commerce without a picture of what those in excess can also bring.

Managed growth will be most effective when popular support comes from firsthand experience of what we want and what we don’t want. Oregon may love dreamers, but not people asleep at the wheel. Creating a vibrant mix of big city pleasures without big city pressures will require careful planning.

Unfortunately, many careers tend to pull people from smaller markets to ever-larger ones, where budgets and clientele and ambitions can grow. We’ll be recruiting in the opposite direction, swimming upstream. Our salmon will be proud.

City dwellers will be very interested to know we have much of what they love and very little of what they hate about their current circumstance.

As McCall shrewdly pointed out, you can love a place to death. In the 1970s, that warning targeted the newcomers. Now it’s new blood that can bring our best future forward.

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