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Rebuild Stronger with Sidewalks and Sewers

September 11th, 2020 by dk

It’s an accepted public service trope to promise a devastated community that it will be built back stronger. Slogans are easy. Rebuilding is hard.

How can we build back the McKenzie River communities so that they are stronger? After this week’s incineration, what can government do to bring things back better? It was a once-in-a-lifetime conflagration. It deserves a response of similar scale.

County officials refer to Highway 126 from Thurston to McKenzie Bridge as Lane County’s longest Main Street. Except for one back road through Marcola to Walterville, there’s only one way in and one way out. My sons and I have driven that stretch hundreds of times over the past five years. I’ve had some time to think about it.

There are a few substantial communities along that 40-mile ribbon of road. And there’s occasional commerce. But they are seldom in the same places. The county and the state should seize this opportunity to enhance that stretch in a generational way. Bring commerce to communities and create communities around commerce.

Time is of the essence. Those who lost everything will soon begin shaping their plans. They want to return to the land they consider home, even if their structures and belongings have been reduced to the soot the rest of us are wiping off our cars.

Building back better means things will be different. The shock from the tragedy will begin to wear off. Leaders must help residents envision a future that isn’t stubbornly identical to the past. Otherwise, nostalgia impedes progress.

Give nearby residents a new way to reach the shops — and one another — without having to walk on the shoulder of the highway. Short stretches of sidewalks would make a small difference, but not commensurate with the total devastation that occurred.

A better solution in some areas would be carving out a right-of-way behind residences for utilities, plus a walking path or a graveled alley. Once there’s even the slightest transportation network, communities begin to flourish. Back-fence conversations are always more intimate than what people say from their front porches.

Give neighbors a safe, “locals only” path to the stores along the highway. This also benefits those who are just passing though. Removing power lines from the highway’s edge will make that drive even more beautiful. Who dreamed that could even be possible?

Where home sites dot along a criss-crossing network of local roads, precious few businesses are walkably nearby. Blue River in particular has a well-developed community, but almost no businesses they can support. 

Restaurants and bars once bustled. They’re gone now. The grocery store in Blue River’s center became a storage unit for Christmas Treasures. What can bring these areas back better? Sewers.

If disaster funds are used to enhance public infrastructure in densely populated areas, property owners will be able to build back better. Again, everyone will benefit. The river — our drinking water — will benefit from reduced septic seepage.

Building back better will take a long time. The first step: rebuild hope.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at Kahle built a vacation home in Blue River that was almost certainly incinerated early Tuesday morning.

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