The city of John Day secured more than $2.5 million in grants and other funding in 2017 for important services and infrastructure projects — from emergency dispatch and wastewater treatment to improved internet access and preventing downtown blight. The city was being both reactive and proactive in approving the projects — with the ultimate goal of improving the economy and the way of life in John Day.
The defeat of a proposed local option tax to fund 911 dispatch service in Grant County, 1,503 to 1,194, on Nov. 7 left the city of John Day in search of options. The city-managed dispatch center covers the entire county, but the state 911 tax does not cover the cost of operation. Over the years, the city gradually assumed dispatch costs for the county and its six small communities, creating a $199,194 deficit for the dispatch center in the city’s current budget.
A 75 cent per excise tax on monthly telephone bills is the only source of funding for the emergency communications center, which needed to double to meet real costs according to city estimates. The city lined up $420,000 from the legislature to fund the center for the next two years while it came up with a solution.
John Day City Manager Nick Green brought three options to the city council — hand over 911 work to Frontier Dispatch in Condon, establish a cooperative dispatch center with an adjacent county or replace the 1989 intergovernmental dispatch agreement with a new one that would keep the 911 center operating in Grant County.
In the past, the city’s goal was to build an industrial park at the airport to attract business, but businesses continued to leave, Green said. An opportunity arose for a different approach with the need to acquire land for a new wastewater treatment plant and the acquisition of the 53-acre Oregon Pine site.
Announced as the Innovation Gateway project, the goal was for the city to construct the initial infrastructure at the former mill site so the private sector could come in and make use of it, Green said.
The city lined up a $519,000 loan from the Business Oregon Infrastructure Finance Authority to buy the site, to be repaid by the city’s sewer fund, and closed with DR Johnson Lumber Company on May 24. A $60,000 Department of Environmental Quality grant was used to conduct required environmental assessment work at the brownfield site.
The Innovation Gateway project encompasses 83 acres on both sides of the John Day River at the entrance to John Day on Highway 26. Aaron Lieuallen was hired to serve as the senior project manager for the project beginning July 1.
In addition to constructing a new wastewater treatment plant that will reclaim up to 80 million gallons of water per year, plans call for making the Innovation Gateway a community gathering place and an attraction for tourists. Plans include construction of a river trail and gardens, a commercial greenhouse that will grow 31 tons of produce annually and converting the former planer building into an open-air farmers market.
Portions of the Oregon Pine property will be sold, and the steel maintenance building will be utilized as a new city shop. A state Transportation Growth Management grant will be used to pay for design work starting in spring 2018.
Improving internet access in Grant County as part of an overall economic development plan became a city goal in 2017, and a task force was established to study broadband possibilities in the county. The mission was to retain and attract younger people and virtual commuters to the John Day area.
The two main internet providers in the county were CenturyLink, which brought internet to the county by microwave tower and provided DSL service over copper telephone lines, and Oregon Telephone Corporation, which accessed the outside world with fiber cable and ran fiber to homes and businesses in some areas.
Green traveled to Salem in February and successfully lobbied the legislature for $1.8 million in state funding. A plan emerged calling for running a 144-strand fiber cable from the fiber backbone on Highway 20 at Burns 75 miles to John Day. The cable would cross Forest Service land and hang on Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative power poles.
Grant County and Seneca joined John Day in establishing a Grant County Digital Coalition to decide how the legislative funding would be spent and how a broadband network would be built and operated in the county. Prairie City and Canyon City opted not to join the coalition, fearing unknown future expenses or obligations.
Establishing the coalition proved controversial, with opponents arguing that government should not compete with private enterprise, county taxpayers should not be on the hook for improving internet access for John Day residents and the new network should provide broadband to not only Long Creek and Monument but rural residents scattered between the cities.
Despite these objections, the county court approved creating the coalition Dec. 13, but it will be March before the members can meet and start making decisions.
Main Street revitalization
At the request of downtown merchants, the city applied for and received a $100,000 Main Street Revitalization Grant to purchase and fix up a downtown building in March 2017. At the time, the Weaver Building at 131 W. Main St. had been on the market for about 850 days, and the owners were asking about $300,000 for it, Green said. The building was recorded as having a real market value of about $250,000.
In June, however, the council learned that the 12,000-square-foot complex consisted of four buildings sharing one roof. Fire hazards posed by failing electric systems and voids in walls indicated the project might require more restoration than anticipated.
Green described the building as “highly dangerous” and a “playground for fire.” Deputy State Fire Marshall Dave Fields said the whole block could be lost if a fire started in the building and, unless progress was being made toward safer conditions, discussions would need to take place about whether the building met the requirements of a dangerous building.
Green recommended the city pay no more than the $100,000 in grant funding it had been awarded to purchase the building, if the council still wanted to pursue the purchase, noting that the fire safety issue would need to be addressed.
The city closed on the property for $100,000 Nov. 16 and began to line up a $200,000 loan to complete Phase 1 renovation work — interior demolition of the top floor, removal of hazardous materials, required structural reinforcement and constructing a fire separation between the first and second floors, Green said. Rental income from the four businesses would pay off that loan in 10 years, he said.
The goal is to develop a mixed-use property, with commercial businesses on the ground floor and six condominiums on the second floor. Peter Baer of Pinnacle Architecture estimated the project could cost nearly $2 million to complete.
Green defended the city’s acquisition of the Weaver Building by noting that the private sector had not invested in renovating downtown buildings. If this project proved successful, perhaps more private investment in downtown John Day would follow, he said.