The 1990s, The Decade That Transformed Wilsonville

Spread the love

Community: City of Wilsonville
By Bill Evans, City of Wilsonville

If you weren’t one of the 7,700 people living in Wilsonville in 1990, it might be hard to imagine our city with no high school, few stoplights and nary a place to buy more than groceries. How rural was Wilsonville in the early ’90s? The City Council still held work sessions at the old Kopper Kitchen restaurant (now the Black Bear Diner).

“We sat in the back room, near a fireplace and a long bar,” recalls former mayor Charlotte Lehan. “It wasn’t closed; people were sitting at the bar and at tables nearby.”

While America was becoming obsessed with the Internet, boy bands and Michael Jordan, Wilsonville was being transformed in the 1990s by a series of decisions that proved fundamental in managing the city’s fast growth and contributing to the high quality of life residents now enjoy.

Emerging From Political Chaos

In January 1991, Lehan attended a City Council meeting to deliver testimony supporting the protection of natural wetlands at Memorial Park. She got more than she bargained for.

At the top of the meeting, newly-elected members of the City Council moved to oust the City Manager. The Mayor at the time, appalled by what he deemed a “witch hunt,” tendered his resignation six days later.

In the wake of the chaos, Jerry Krummel — with all of two months experience on the Council — was appointed mayor. Lehan eventually, and quite reluctantly, agreed to fill the vacant seat.

“I said no twice,” Lehan recalls. “The third time, I only agreed to be on City Council if they couldn’t find anybody else.”

They didn’t, and a political career was born.

In September of 1991, the City hired City Manager Arlene Loble, who had led the transformation of Park City, Utah, from a small mining town to destination ski resort in the 1980s. Her second act would prove equally transformative.

“Arlene really had a vision about how the city would be. One of her cardinal principles was to maintain livability at all costs,” remembered Wilsonville’s longtime legislative lobbyist, Greg Leo.

Loble quickly got the City’s oars rowing in the same direction.

“Arlene doesn’t always get enough credit,” said Lehan.

The Year 2000 Plan

One initiative inherited by the city’s new leadership was a stalled plan to finance much-needed new infrastructure. The new Council went to work to modify “The Year 2000 Plan,” identifying a list of projects that could be funded with the establishment of an urban renewal district. Voters approved the plan in 1992.

The Plan helped the City establish its high-tech industrial footprint. The Mentor Graphics campus was one of the first developments made possible through urban renewal-funded investment in new roads, sewer and water systems. This and subsequent investment from other major employers and developers greatly contributed to the 1165% (11x) growth in assessed value during the district’s life cycle.

The Year 2000 Plan funded the development of Town Center Park and City Hall, purchased land and built what is now Murase Plaza, contributed to the construction cost of Wilsonville High School, expanded the wastewater treatment plant and advanced projects to bring Wilsonville Rd. and other streets to modern standards.

The City That Doesn’t Back Down

A hallmark of Wilsonville’s success throughout the decade was its uncanny ability to emerge victorious in fights to protect the City’s livability.

One of Loble’s first strategic insights was to recognize that if the City didn’t ramp up its local transit system within five years, TriMet could absorb Wilsonville into its service boundary. The city’s South Metro Area Regional Transit (a.k.a. SMART) has since flourished as one of the few independent providers in the Portland-metro area, providing fare-free rides throughout Wilsonville.

The City also engaged in a long battle with the State to protect land that is now the site of Villebois. The acreage on which the neighborhood sits was previously the site of the Dammasch State Hospital. After Dammasch closed in 1995, the land was targeted by the Department of Corrections to site a new womens’ prison. When the State came calling, the city was armed for battle because Loble had the foresight to have staff develop a residential master plan for the area.

The City took its fight all the way to the governor’s office, with Lehan successfully persuading Governor John Kitzhaber to site the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility at its current site on Day Rd.

“What we have today, in almost every case, we had to fight for,” Leo said.

While the battle for the Dammasch property raged on, the city was also dealing with an even bigger issue. Its wells were running dry, and the city was on the verge of being without a permanent
water source.

That potential death blow to Wilsonville’s future led to curtailment notices and a two-year moratorium on new building for lack of an adequate water supply. In response, city leadership zeroed in on its most consequential – and controversial – political decision of the decade.

Its plan to draw water from the Willamette River drew wavering support and some extreme opposition. Lehan and her fellow Councilors rolled up their sleeves to persuade voters.

“I remember sitting in the governor’s office preparing to testify on the prison issue,” recalled Lehan, “and I’m on the phone with Greg Leo making decisions on the water campaign, and setting up phone banks to talk to voters.”

The push was successful, and the measure to tap the Willamette narrowly passed in 1999. The City’s water treatment plant opened in 2002, securing a reliable long-term water source.

By the decade’s end, the population had nearly doubled to more than 13,500, and the city was nevertheless able to move forward.

“That was probably one of the three or four most important turning points in the city’s history,” Leo said. “It was the time when we really made Wilsonville into Wilsonville.”