Prairie City took a hit in 2009 with the closure of the Prairie Wood Products mill outside of town and a general decline in timber production during the past decades.
But the small city with expansive views of the Strawberry Mountain Range has proved resilient — upgrading critical infrastructure, updating the storefront look on Front Street and continuing to host major events for the county.
With about 900 residents, Prairie City is surrounded by agricultural land and offers a fairly complete suite of local services, including a supermarket, dining, lodging, gas, general merchandise and a senior home. Public services include a fire department and public K-12 school.
According to Johnson Economics’ May 2019 Economic Opportunities Analysis report, most of the city’s 250 jobs are in the forest, agriculture, education and health care sectors, with additional jobs in retail and tourism. Prairie City is a gateway community for surrounding outdoor recreation.
Water shortages in drought years have plagued Prairie City for years. A water emergency was declared in 2017 after a lightning storm knocked out electronic control systems, and an emergency was declared the next year after the water level in the city’s million-gallon reservoir tank dropped to 1.5 feet.
Low snowpack in the mountains and continuing drought conditions were blamed for the 2018 emergency. Dixie Creek, a major source of water for the city, had dried up, and the city’s wells were unable to keep up with demand despite water restrictions.
A new well site at Fainman Springs offered a solution to the water problem, but the city had taken on significant debt installing a $2 million slow-sand filter system in 2008 and was facing difficulties in lining up financing for the new well project.
With a top estimate of $1.5 million for the Fainman Springs project, the city learned in August 2018 that the state would provide a $550,000 grant and a $950,000 loan at 1.7% to pay for the project.
By that time, the city had begun hauling water in tenders from John Day in an attempt to keep up with water usage. Mayor Jim Hamsher said he was concerned about maintaining a safe level in the reservoir for firefighting purposes. He was also concerned about residents who continued to violate water restrictions.
The city received more good news on Dec. 21 when the USDA Rural Development office in Portland notified the city it had been awarded a $1 million emergency grant. The funding could be used instead of the low-interest state loan to pay the costs of the well project and water hauling.
The Fainman Springs project dates back to 2005. Marciel Well Drilling conducted tests on the three wells in 2018 and was able to produce 475 gallons per minute — sufficient water to meet the city’s demand. Hamsher said he expected to see the project completed sometime this summer.
Meanwhile, the city was putting $2 million in loans and grants from USDA Rural Development to work upgrading Prairie City’s sewer collection system and treatment plant.
A force main along Highway 26 west of town had been leaking, and lift pumps, controls and check valves were lined up for replacement. Cracked collection pipes had been found using remote video, including on North Johnson Avenue.
The new variable-speed sewer pumps were expected to reduce electrical usage by 30%, but a major power outage following a winter storm in 2019 caused spikes that damaged some of the new control equipment, Hamsher said.
The mayor has also been in negotiations with U.S. Cellular for a new cell tower in Prairie City. Neighbors opposed the initial location proposed by the company, and Hamsher directed them to city-owned land near the closed Prairie Wood Products mill. The city would receive about $1,500 per month, which would be used to pay for upgrades to one of the city’s older wells.
“To me, it’s a win-win — good cell coverage for Prairie City residents with a lease that provides income to the city,” he said.
The city is also making changes to Depot RV Park that will provide much-needed revenue. Installation of frost-free water connections and higher capacity electrical service at each site will help the county-owned park remain open into the shoulder seasons and even winter.
The city earns revenue by operating the RV park. The daily fee was recently increased by $2, with $1 going to the water fund and $1 going to the sewer fund.
Homes and stores
After years of slow growth, Prairie City is seeing some development. Three new single-family homes were built in the city limits last year, and two more are under construction — one in the city limits and one in the city’s urban growth boundary. One more may start this year, City Recorder Bobbie Brown said.
“We’re seeing vacant homes from past economic downturns being put to use again and being renovated,” Hamsher said.
The people coming to Prairie City seeking homes are working people, often employed by the Forest Service, Brown said.
“It’s getting hard to find a place to rent,” Brown said. “There’s no homes on the market right now.”
Improvements to Front Street are a result of grassroots efforts, starting with the Madden brothers’ Prairie Pub restaurant, which opened to the public in September 2018. That was followed by the Eagles in Flight motorcycle shop, which Rob and Trish Tygret opened in the renovated Prairie Drug and Prairie Hardware & Gifts building.
Now, the Huffman’s Select Market store is undergoing a major facelift. Brown said only one vacant storefront remains on Front Street. Volunteer efforts to maintain flowering plants along Front Street have been organized, now under the city’s Beautification and Revitalization Committee, she said.
Prairie City hosts two major annual events in Grant County. The Fourth of July parade and evening fireworks display is a main draw for residents and visitors alike from across the county, as is Christmas on the Prairie.
This year will see what will be a major inaugural event of regional interest. Fiber Fest will feature nine fiber arts workshops and dozens of vendors on July 26-28. The event will be set up at the Prairie City Community Center, the Teen Center and the city park across from City Hall.