Jan. 4, 2020 — 2019 was a year of change and growth for the Siuslaw Region and the City of Florence. There were a number of transformative events that took place in 2019, some of which were unexpected while others were years in the making. There was no question that Oregon’s premier coastal community lived up to its motto during the past 12 months as a City in Motion.
The Florence City Council was busy throughout the year, beginning with the opening of the newly remodeled Florence City Hall in February. The new home for city administrative staff was unveiled at a special ceremony on Feb. 19, hosted by Mayor Joe Henry and City Manager Erin Reynolds, and attended by a full house of interested citizens. The cost for the remodel of City Hall was $2.9 million and the construction element of the project took just over a year to complete.
Public support for the City Hall upgrade project was tepid at first, but the need for improvements to the old building was undeniable and the modifications were embraced by the public as the project neared completion.
Another important project, the ReVision Florence Streetscaping Project, began in the spring. While the work is being done primarily on Highway 101, the addition of ADA accessible sidewalks and improved crossing indictors will add to the overall improvements to the entrances to town and to the Historic Old Town District. The gateway aspect of the “Revision” project will enhance the appearance of the entrance to Old Town and hopefully increase interest in those passing by the area.
ReVision was originally scheduled to be finished in November but, due to weather related concerns, the completion date was pushed back until sometime in late January. The total cost for the streetscaping project was just under $9 million.
The upgrade to Florence City Hall and the start of the “Revision” were not the only major improvements in the city in 2019. District 4 Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sponsored and oversaw the passage of funding bills that allocated nearly $3 million for upgrades at the Florence Municipal Airport and the Port of Siuslaw.
The airport upgrade has been mostly completed and has resulted in improved lighting at the facility’s runways and better navigational equipment to assist pilots while landing in inclement weather. The work at the port is set to begin in early January with dredging of the marina boat slips first on the agenda.
One of the more challenging issues faced by the Florence community during 2019 was the partial shutdown of the federal government, which took place from late 2018 and extended into the start of the year.
U.S. Coast Guard Station Siuslaw River was one of the organizations that was directly impacted by the border emergency declared by President Donald Trump in December 2018. Unfortunately, during this time, service members stationed in Florence were not paid.
Local veteran organizations, community groups, retail establishments and restaurants stepped up during the shutdown, raising more than $30,000, which was distributed directly to the 38 Coast Guard members stationed at Siuslaw River to help pay the bills.
Another large issue was the issue of the area’s chronic housing shortages. With the hope of increasing all types of available housing, the city updated and streamlined the residential codes governing residential construction in city limits.
Planning Director Wendy FarleyCampbell led the Florence Planning Commission through the first major rewrite of city regulations which govern residential construction in more than three decades. The process took just over six months to complete and included numerous commission meetings and public hearings related to the hundreds of changes — some minor, many significant — that were ultimately approved by commissioners and, later, Florence City Council.
The result was a significantly less difficult procedure for developers to navigate, which should cost less and require fewer steps to complete than the previous system.
2019 also saw a renewed focus on the numerous committees which advise and consult with the city. These committees are made up of residents that volunteer their time to learn about the issues related to the committees they serve on and then to share their observations with the Florence City Council.
The selection of individuals chosen to serve on advisory bodies starts with an application process and ends with the mayor making final determinations as to who will serve, after nominal consultations with other councilors. This process is codified in City Code, Title 2, Chapter 1, and led to the concern expressed by some councilors that the process was unfair, and the individuals serving on committees should be voted on by all council members.
The impact these committees can have on the end result of the process related to their deliberations was clear in a number of situations this year, but was perhaps most evident in the controversy surrounding the installation of the “Stitching Time, Weaving Cultures” mural.
The Florence Public Art Committee (PAC) spent more than a year creating a call to artists, reviewing submissions and finally selecting an artist to create and install a mural on the Central Lincoln PUD building at the corner of Quince Street and Highway 126.
This process was extensive and, while the public was encouraged to be part of every step of the selection process, initial participation was limited. The mural became a point of contention as certain people felt the subject matter and style used by artists from Marino-Heidel Studios in Portland was not well-suited for Florence.
This dislike for the mural led to a clash between Mayor Joe Henry and Councilor Joshua Greene on the content and funding for the overall subject of public art in Florence. The two have different perspectives on the importance of public art and their opinions often drove the debate to verbal attacks — at times of a personal nature — during public meetings.
Originally, the funding for the purchase of the mural was part of the budget for the Florence Urban Renewal Agency (FURA), which received significant negative feedback for funding the project.
This funding process changed after the tumult surrounding the “Stitching Time” mural, as Henry spearheaded a successful effort to clearly separate PAC from FURA — effectively eliminating any future funding for PAC from that source. During this time, Greene resigned from his ex-officio position on FURA.
In June, Florence City Council approved the City of Florence’s Biennial Budget proposal of nearly $60 million in public expenditures over the next two years.
One of the most unifying news stories of 2019 was the arrival in April of “The Wall that Heals.” The 350-foot replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington brought together many in the community, some who have served and others who have lost loved ones during service. Having the opportunity to see the thousands of names carved into the obsidian surface of the memorial drew thousands to the athletic field behind Siuslaw Middle School.
The outpouring of support that was the result of the visit led to an increased awareness of the issues faced by local veterans, many of whom still deal with the pain and loss they encountered during not only the conflict in Vietnam, but also the many battles fought in other places and other times.
There were also some local issues that had a national, or even international component to them, which brought them to the attention of Florence residents.
The ongoing debate over the severity of climate change led to protests outside Florence City Hall and along Highway 101, advocating for a formal position by the city acknowledging the dangers of climate change and formulating a policy to concretely address the issue. To date, while certainly promoting awareness, the protests have not been successful in achieving any specific or official action by the city.
There were many opportunities for visitors and officials to come to Florence to participate in conferences and meetings during 2019. One of these was the Oregon Coastal Caucus Economic Conference, which took place in August and featured forums led by Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and DeFazio. This year’s conference was entitled “Infrastructure Investment — A Collaborative Approach” and featured a wide array of panels and speakers. There were panels that targeted a specific sector of the economy, such as winemaking, fishing and farming, to discussions centered on emergency preparedness and the issue of improving broadband infrastructure needs for rural coastal communities.
The presentations made at the conference explored the many avenues that are available for coastal communities, business owners and municipalities to take advantage of the growing interest in Oregon as a place to start a business or to raise a family. There were also workshops addressing the changing educational needs of students and the ways in which state assistance can be garnered in support of many types of projects designed to increase tourism and investment in the state.