The Great Divide

I was recently asked to participate on a panel this weekend at Oregon State University which will be discussing the following three questions:

  • How would you characterize the relationship between urban and rural Oregonians?
  • How/what issues should the urban-rural relationship change?
  • Is the effort worth it?

Most of my life has been spent wandering back and forth between rural and urban Oregon; so I should be uniquely qualified to answer these questions.  I know there are different interests and points of view in the various places I’ve lived and worked over the past five decades, but I’ve felt equally at home in Eugene and Oakridge or Portland and La Grande.  It’s fair to say rural Oregon is generally more conservative than its urban counterpart, and people do not earn as much money in the less populated parts of the state.  Despite these generalizations, most of the people I’ve met are able to look beyond their personal geography and do not harbor much ill will toward someone who lives in a different place.  The differences between Oregonians and Californians are, of course, a different matter.

I worry more about where urban-rural relationships might go than I do about where they are now.  History documents many examples of leaders rising to power on the wings of prejudice, divisiveness, and blame.  If rural people are led to believe that urban prosperity comes at their expense, or vice versa, the ability to cooperate, share resources, and solve problems will be compromised.  Conversely, as long as urban and rural residents are willing to take the time to understand each other’s interests, it will be clear that they have much more in common than they do in differences.  Urbanites should be concerned, for example, about higher unemployment, lower incomes, and declining prosperity in rural communities, just as rural residents should worry about the health of cities.  Even though some rural residents complain about Portland’s political and economic statewide dominance, I think the vast majority want the metropolitan area to thrive. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, “The rich are different,” to which Ernest Hemingway was said to have replied, “Yeah, they have more money.”  My policy recommendation for how Oregon should be dealing with the current prosperity gap between urban and rural places is to acknowledge the wisdom of Hemingway’s retort and invest more resources in places that don’t have enough and need more.  Some of those places are rural, but there is no shortage of impoverished neighborhoods in urban areas.  I once attended a conference where I listened to an African-American woman from Oakland, California, tell about her experiences trying to make her neighborhood a decent place to live.  I was struck by how similar her story was to what I was trying to do in Oakridge, Oregon.  I later discovered a similar comparison between a relatively underserved rural area and an urban neighborhood when I was trying to help bring broadband telecommunications service to La Grande.  The “Digital Divide” turned out be more of a matter of corporate return on investment than an issue of geography or population density.

I would answer the final question posed to our panel with a simple “yes.”  Understanding and documenting the nature and extent of the differences between rural and urban Oregon offers the potential of narrowing the economic gap.   I believe it is an appropriate and necessary role for the state to aggregate resources and invest them in places, rural or urban, where there is a need.  Capacity building through technical assistance to small businesses and communities, targeted infrastructure improvement, and incentives to employers are important tools, as are appropriate natural resource management practices and land use regulations. The nature, quality, and extent of our collective investment will, in my opinion, be the keys to bridging the great divide.

Saying Goodbye

The City of Albany is losing two exceptional people with the resignations of Ralph Reid from the Council and Diane Taniguchi-Dennis from her position as Public Works Director.  These losses follow the recent departures of a number of outstanding employees and precede the loss of many more in the months ahead.  I do not recall a time in my career where such a high percentage of experienced people chose to leave over such a short period of time.

Councilor Reid is retiring for health reasons after more than 16 years of service on the council.  I have been around for about a third of that time, and I am grateful for the chance I’ve had to work with Ralph.  The passion, commitment, and energy he has given as a volunteer humble me when I sometimes grouse about attending an evening meeting or event.  I particularly appreciate Ralph’s understanding of the differences between the policy-making role of the Council and the administrative responsibilities of staff.  He is a strong advocate for transportation issues and has been an invaluable volunteer driver for the City’s Call-a-Ride program for many years.  Ralph will be missed as a councilor, volunteer, and friend.

I will also miss Diane Taniguchi-Dennis’s insight, intelligence, compassion, and vision.  Diane has the unique gift of being a visionary leader while remaining a practical and effective team member.  She helped complete the largest public works projects in the history of the City during her tenure and has been instrumental in finding workable solutions to the inevitable problems that accompany projects of this size.  The name “Talking Water Gardens” may not appeal to everyone, but it is hard not to like this award-winning solution to the problem of meeting temperature requirements for wastewater discharge into the Willamette River.  Albany, Millersburg, and ATI Wah Chang, one of the area’s largest employers, now have a serviceable treatment system that is also a significant community amenity.  Diane deserves great credit for her management of the Public Works Department over the past eight years, and I know she will be equally successful in her new position with Clean Water Services.

The sadness of departures is often leavened by the opportunity of new arrivals.  Mark Shepard will begin service as our Public Works Director in August, after nearly 20 years of service with the City.  I believe the two essential qualities of a successful manager are integrity and competence.  Mark has consistently demonstrated these traits in the years I’ve known him.

Earlier this week, I spoke with five new employees during an orientation session and repeated something I’ve said many times since coming to Albany six years ago.  I told them I believe the City of Albany is a great place to work and an outstanding organization.  I could cite many reasons for my belief, but the most important is the positive attitude of the people who dedicate their time and talents to making the City effectively serve the community.  Ralph and Diane are great examples of that attitude, and they deserve our thanks for a job well done.

The End of the World

I was glad the world didn’t end May 21 because it meant there’s a good chance I will be around to see my youngest son graduate from college this weekend (June 11).  I think there may even be some people besides me who would view my son’s impending graduation as a portentous event.

Patrick was never really interested in school when he was growing up.  He liked the social part of his education but apparently found the academic component too sedentary.  Patrick is an active and energetic guy, which explains why he loved sports and excelled as a high school wrestler.  He survived school, and I think he maintained grades just good enough to stay eligible to do the things he enjoyed.

Following high school, Patrick worked at things like wild land fire fighting, farming, and construction.  His best job from my perspective was working at Timberline Resort where fathers of employees could occasionally ski for free.  Patrick’s view of education didn’t change much, however, until he married and began thinking about a family.  His marriage to a wonderful young woman seemed to be the watershed between the impulsiveness of youth and the maturity required to be a successful adult. 

Patrick started making one good decision after another and eventually found himself at Western Oregon University where he was recently selected as the outstanding student in his program.  He has also been accepted to a very competitive graduate school at the University of Oregon.  Patrick had some help along the way, including a great unpaid internship in our Building Division and a similar experience with the City of Adair Village.  He has worked there for nearly a year and will begin serving as their part-time assistant city administrator July 1. 

My children have given me many proud and a few discouraging moments over the past 38 years, but I am most grateful for the gift of grandchildren with parents doing their best to raise them to be happy and caring people.  I did not imagine ten years ago the future I’m now living.  I did know, or at least hoped with conviction, that the world was not going to end anytime soon and that my obligation was to do my part to make it better.  I think the biggest part of fulfilling that obligation is maintaining faith in the people and the world around me.  I have been richly rewarded by that faith to this point in my life; and, considering the alternatives, I see no reason to change.  To paraphrase an old joke, “I plan to live forever.  So far, so good.”