2019 Year in Review: Top Headlines

The stories that shaped 2019

Jan. 4, 2020 — As the area officially begins 2020 and the next decade, here is a breakdown of some the other stories that helped define the Siuslaw Region in 2019 …

 New City Councilors Sworn in

The first Florence City Council meeting of 2019 was held Jan. 7 at the Florence Events Center. Mayor Joe Henry welcomed members of the community, many of whom had gathered to greet the new city council.

The retiring council agenda was short and more of a formality, with the primary purpose to provide outgoing Councilor Susy Lacer the opportunity to share her thoughts on her tenure on the council with the crowd and to accept very positive comments from fellow board members.

Councilor Joshua Greene spoke of his appreciation for her work over the past four years and Councilor Ron Preisler, along with Henry, spoke of Lacer’s willingness to accept committee duties and her commitment to the community.

“I want to thank her for her years of dedicated service to our community and to the city council,” Henry said. “She has been instrumental in helping us to get through some interesting decisions along the way.

The second part of the meeting began with the administration of the oath of office to Henry, who was re-elected as mayor, Councilor Woody Woodbury, who was elected after he was appointed to the role in January 2018, and Councilor Geraldine Lucio, a first-time candidate.

Woodbury and Lucio won the open seats on the council in a race that had created a controversy in late 2018 among the electorate due to perceived partisan overtones.

The mayor welcomed both councilors warmly and the first work of the 2019 Florence City Council began.


“A small picture of homelessness”

In the beginning of 2019, the Florence Emergency Cold Weather shelter had been seeing dips in the numbers of guests who arrived, while Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) saw a small decline in those requesting services. However, the Florence Police Department had seen numbers remain flat, and the Lane County Point in Time homeless count had seen steady increases over the years — but the data was incomplete, showing only one sheltered homeless person and 22 unsheltered, far beyond the lower rates that other organizations had been seeing.

“Sometimes the people don’t trust government,” said Lane County Human Services Supervisor Alexandria Dreher. “If they’re homeless, and they’re in a crisis and not interested in completing a survey, or they don’t trust the system, it’s not worth it to give information.”

The problems with finding an accurate count of a homeless population in the Siuslaw region was just one component in the myriad of issues that governments, nonprofits and residents face when addressing the issue.

In a three-part series examining the issue in Florence, the Siuslaw News spoke with a wide variety of voices in an attempt to come to an understanding of the issue, including spending an evening at the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter and speaking to homeless guests who expressed the problems of living on the streets in the region. Siuslaw News also spoke with various institutions, such as the SOS, the Cold Weather Shelter, Lane County and the Florence Police Department.

There were many organizations looking to solve the issue, with some headway being made. A small but dedicated group, called First Step, was creating a handful of transitional housing units, and those have since been deemed successful. The city has been working on creating more housing opportunities, and well-established programs like Florence Food Share were working to bring sustenance to those in need — home or no home.

But what was not found was a roadmap toward a long-term solution to the problem. From well-meaning but disparate groups that remain unorganized, to a politically fractured community that has difficulty agreeing on the basic tenets of the issue, a solution to homelessness seemed out of reach.

The series ended with a question to Florence Police Commander John Pitcher: What is the answer to homelessness?

“I wish I had the answer to that,” he said. “A lot of places are dealing with the problems surrounding homelessness. I just don’t have the answer.”


Florence City Hall Opens

Florence City Hall re-opened in February at 250 Highway 101, and the redesigned building is now serving residents and city staff in a building remodeled specifically to maximize the space available at the location of the previous City Hall, with major upgrades for all departments.

“We are excited to move back into City Hall, where we can now provide more efficient and effective customer service to our community members, as well as see improved workflow for our staff,” said City of Florence City Project Manager Megan Messmer.

Importantly, the new building now meets all accessibility requirements and is fully ADA compliant. In addition, it also meets all state seismic safety standards. 

The internal elements of the structure are important, but staff felt there was also a need to have an inviting and welcoming atmosphere in the interior spaces of the building. To that end there are large, polished, wooden tables for speakers in the smaller meeting rooms, which are situated adjacent to the main chamber, surrounded by frosted glass. These workspaces are also multi-media ready, allowing for smaller groups to meet and share information in way previously unavailable. For more information, visit ci.florence.or.us.


Wall that Heals

The arrival in April of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial known as the “Wall that Heals” served as a catalyst for many Florence-area veterans to revisit one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, the Vietnam Era.

Conversations regarding service during Vietnam, and the residual emotions from that time, reverberated throughout local veterans’ groups when the wall arrived last week. Many of these veterans have rarely, if ever, shared their feelings or emotions concerning the war and their treatment after the conflict had ended.

The replica of the original memorial brought renewed appreciation for the sacrifices and the disrespect many serving during the conflict have buried or simply chosen to forget. American involvement in the controversial Vietnam war began in 1955, continuing until 1975. The two countries resumed formal diplomatic relations in 1995 and are currently strong trade partners.


Siuslaw Watershed Council

In 2019, Siuslaw Watershed Council created eight short films in the “Stories of Restoring the Siuslaw” series, updated its website at siuslaw.org and social media, restored creeks and land across the region, preserved habitat, gave away 13,000 native plants to over 100 different riparian community members and held the weeklong Watershed Camp in June for 48 local youth and secured over $1.6 million in grants. Executive Director Eli Tome said, “All that money gets reinvested in the community to do restoration work, and employs us at the watershed council.” In addition, the council honored its partnership with Ecotrust with the Spirit of Siuslaw Award, given annually to an organization that has contributed positively to the health and wellbeing of the watershed. “The Siuslaw’s always been a really special place, and a special place to work for salmon restoration,” Tome said. “We have such an opportunity to recover a species here. There’s a lot of community support for our work, and people are so connected to the water and to salmon. It’s a very unique place to live and work in that regard.”



In May, Michael Schick was installed as the new chief of the Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) and Western Lane Ambulance Districts (WLAD)

“You’re helping people, and I love helping people,” he said as to why he felt drawn to the profession. “And who doesn’t like having a fire hose and putting out a fire? I also fell in love with the EMS side. I think definitely the community and the men and women I was working with were what I loved. … You’re helping people on their worst day, trying to help solve their problems for them.”

As for what he was expecting in his first year, he said he was not looking to upset things.

“Whenever a new chief comes in, people are afraid that there’s going to be a lot of changes,” Schick said. “There may be changes down the road, but it’s important for me to know the community first.”

Since his arrival, Schick has helped to turn the Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA) into a reality and has worked to cut unnecessary costs by eliminating redundancy in the district, as well as increased training. Most importantly to him, he has worked to get the public involved.

“I love having citizens come in,” he said. “I love hearing if we did something great. And I want to hear about mistakes. We’re human, we make mistakes. Every press release that comes from me, on the bottom it will say, ‘Call the fire chief.’”

SVFR’s phone number is 541-997-3212.


First Women’s Veterans Day

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown proclaimed an observance of the first Oregon Women’s Veteran’s Day on June 12. 

Women have always played a critical role in the development of freedom and democracy in America. While women’s contributions have generally been regarded as domestic in nature, this belief stands in stark contrast to the facts, which show that women have been involved in fighting and dying for America since its inception.

 “Throughout our nation’s history, women have served honorably and courageously both on and off the battlefield,” Brown stated. “Today, women comprise more than 16 percent of the country’s military force, with more than 25,000 women veterans currently residing in the state of Oregon and the number of women veterans continues to increase — as does Oregon’s commitment to promoting awareness of their contributions to our nation’s military history and improved access to their earned benefits.”

 “As a proud veteran of the U.S. Army, this historic proclamation is something that is obviously very personal for me,” said Oregon’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs Director Kelly Fitzpatrick. “I am proud that here at ODVA, women veterans are represented at every level of our agency, including the very top. We are proud of all women veterans in the state of Oregon. You are a vital part of the Oregon veteran community, and we will continue to work to anticipate your needs and help you thrive in our state. Thank you for your service to our country.”


Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN)

RAIN returned to Florence with a frenzy in June and throughout 2019, getting renewed support from Florence City Council, area businesses and an entrepreneurial community ready for training. New coastal venture catalyst Ariel Ruben met with new and existing businesses, partnered with Siuslaw School District’s Career Technical Education entrepreneurship instructor Eddie Mielke and his students, helped the Florence Maker Space get established and hosted the Florence Entrepreneurial Activation Event at City Lights Cinemas.


Mural Dedication

In August, the most significant example of public art in Florence was on full display at Wednesday’s long-anticipated dedication of the “Stitching Time” mural. A crowd of over 100 turned out for the ceremony, including Chief Warren Brainard of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, and Catherine Rickbone, Executive Director for the Oregon Coast Council of the Arts, along with senior members of City of Florence staff.

Master of Ceremonies for the dedication was Mayor Joe Henry, who offered praise and appreciation for the effort by all the participants involved in the project, including the Public Art Committee and the artists, Angelina Marino and Joel Heidel, for their work.

Public response and debate on the “Stitching Time” mural has been both mixed and at times heated, with differing opinions regarding the content and placement of the mural propelling the subject of what constitutes good art — and ultimately whether the city should be involved in the purchase and placement of art. Kari Westlund from Travel Lane County was on hand for the ceremony and said she believes the mural is a great addition to the attractions offered in this area.

“It was nice to see such a great turnout to celebrate the new mural. It is hard work to accomplish big community projects and Florence has many underway,” Westlund said. “I can’t remember a time in the last 25 years where I’ve sensed as much momentum, civic pride and optimism. It really feels different, from the new City Hall and public art projects, to the new streetscape.”

Perhaps the most meaningful moment of the dedication took place during the ribbon-cutting ceremony when both Henry and City Councilor Joshua Greene put aside past personal differences and warmly shook hands to the delight, surprise and applause of the crowd.



In September, SVFR and WLAD formally moved away from its previously formed Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) and toward the creation of the Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA), an organization that will employ administrative personnel from SVFR and WLAD, while also allowing both boards to work more closely together.

“One of the pitfalls of the IGA was that Western Lane didn’t really have input,” Schick explained. “Through this IGA, I had oversight through Western Lane, but really my bosses were the SVFR Board of Directors. Western Lane was allowed to have input, but that was just because the SVFR Board of Directors said they could have input.”

Looking to find a way to give WLAD official say over matters, such as the hiring and firing of the chief, the agencies entertained three options. The first was just changing the language of the IGA to give WLAD more authority, but “that didn’t fix anything and was only good as long as the IGA lasted. It wasn’t a long-term solution,” Schick said.

Another option would be that SVFR and WLAD could have decided to completely merge into one entity, but neither agency was fully ready to commit to that step.

The final option was to form a third entity that would have oversight by both agencies, while still allowing SVFR and WLAD to remain independent taxing districts. That third option eventually became WLFEA, which was officially adopted last September, with the dissolution of the IGA effective Oct. 1, 2019. To assure a smooth transition, members of the IGA committee will serve as the first WLFEA board through this June, when two new board members — one from SVFR and one from WLAD — will be appointed to replace two current members through a nomination process. The process will be repeated on an annual basis to assure carryover of two previous board members each term.

WLFEA employs the fire chief, two operations chiefs from each district and four administrative staff making up 3.5 full-time equivalent positions. It is the end result of the next steps in the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) that SVFR and WLAD already had in place to share administrative resources.

In March, WLAD Director Larry Farnsworth clarified that the creation of WLFEA did not mean the two districts would consolidate completely.

“It’s not a merger,” he said. “It may never be a merger. It doesn’t need to be a merger for us to realize a lot of the synergy that’s before us. So, we can speak with one voice and we can give better direction to the chief. I’m sure the chief would appreciate having a single voice to direct his work and the work of his staff.”

The creation of WLFEA also helps bring financial transparency and simplicity to the IGA.

“The concept is to give overall management to both districts,” WLAD Director Rick Yecny said. “Under the proposal, the third entity, which would be a non-taxing entity, would have two board members from each board sit on the committee. If there was ever a tie vote, the full boards would convene with all 10 board members required to make a final decision by vote. The idea, too, is that all three boards would meet at the same time, which would cut the total number of meetings down from 24 to 12. We will have fewer meetings, which also means reducing the amount of time spent creating meeting packets, scheduling meetings — and it allows the boards to communicate directly.”

Operationally, SVFR and WLAD (along with their boards) will still be in charge of base operations: SVFR over fire prevention and suppression, WLAD over ambulance operations and Mobile Integrated Healthcare. But WLFEA will house the administration, including Schick, House, Fire Ops Chief Jim Dickerson and office staff for both agencies. The budget for WLFEA will come from contributions from SVFR and WLAD.


Climate Change Debate

In October, Siuslaw News launched a three-part series looking at the different perspectives regarding the debate over climate change. The arguing and acrimony surrounding the issue often threatened to drown out the reason for the concern. While millions of people around the planet voice deep concern for the need to take action in reducing or eliminating man-made toxins and pollutants as part of impacting climate change, millions of others go about their lives with little or no concern over the issue, choosing to believe that the human impacts on the planet are not as critical as others portray.

Regardless of where a person stands on the debate, each side believes there is validity in their point of view that should be acknowledged. However, there is an axiom that seems to apply in this situation, which is to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

This philosophy is embraced by the U.S. military, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and municipal governments around the country. The reason is simple: science and what people understand about it is always evolving and changing, creating the possibility of misinterpretation — which seems to be the main thrust behind the current debate over climate change.

Not to say the series couldn’t find common ground in the debate.

Most agreed that the planet’s resources are finite, and the processes often used to extract and consume them can be destructive, causing interruption of other natural cycles.

Humans now have the ability and the necessary tools to alter, modify or destroy every habitat on Earth. This can occur through intent, neglect, misjudgment or inaction.

But do we understanding the long-term impacts of humanity’s power to impose its will on the planet? And do we understand the Earth’s ability to impose its own will humanity through its changing climate?

Those questions, and the debate over them, continue into the new decade.


PAC adopts new guidelines

The City of Florence Public Art Committee (PAC) met on Dec. 2 at Florence City Hall for the first time since the city council approved the committee’s modified workplan at its Nov. 4 meeting. The approval of the revised workplan removed the metaphorical “Sword of Damocles” that was hanging over the organization, as members worked successfully to respond to calls earlier this year for the committee’s reorganization or dissolution.

These calls came after the selection of PAC’s purchase of the “Stitching Time, Weaving Cultures” mural on the east side of the Lincoln Public Utilities District Building, on the corner of Quince Street and Highway 126.

The process by which art is integrated into the different aspects of the city’s overall public art program was criticized by many residents as a direct result of the mural’s installation. Public meetings were held to packed rooms of residents upset with or in favor of the subject matter and the style of the piece created by Marino-Heidel Studios of Portland. The makeup of PAC, its reporting process, and how the city funds public art all changed drastically because of the mural controversy.


Additional 2019 Highlights:

  • Awards: On Jan. 23, Florence Area Chamber of Commerce held the 11th annual Siuslaw Awards at the Florence Events Center to honor local individuals and businesses for their contributions to the Siuslaw region. Winners included: 2018 Distinguished Service Award – Jenna Bartlett, Non-Profit Achievement Award – Florence Habitat for Humanity, Community Caring Award – TR Hunter Real Estate, Curb Appeal – City of Florence Public Works, Customer Service Award – Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast, Innovation in Business Award, which went to the Florence Public Art Committee and Stu Johnston Business of the Year – Siuslaw News. The Florence First Citizen was Dee Osborne and the Future First Citizen was Audrey Lowder.


  • Collard Lake Road: Lane County voted to maintain Collard Lake Road, County Road No. 2216, and completed Asphalt and sinkhole repair.


  • Democracy: On Dec. 17, more than 200 people gathered in front of Florence City Hall in support of the House of Representatives’ action to formalize Articles of Impeachment for President Donald J. Trump. Other protests or petitions throughout the year included the “Women’s Wave” rally in January, the Red for Ed “grade-in” and signs in front of Siuslaw schools in support of funding Oregon’s schools in May, the Lights for Liberty vigil at Florence First United Methodist Church in July, climate change protests in several locations and Florence 4 Life’s pro-life gathering on Highway 101 in October.


  • Dunes City: Dunes City Council and staff continued to discuss reasons the community should remain a city, especially as the city dealt with issues of taxation and revenues. In addition, a housing development on Little Woahink, water conditions and wildlife were all important topics throughout the year.


  • Education — Mapleton: Mapleton Elementary School opened its preschool in October. One parent said, “The preschool adds an important steppingstone for students, parents and the community.” New school counselor Brittany Anderson now meets with students three half-days and one full day each week. The Mapleton Community Resource Center, part of the Western Lane Health Network, made progress towards opening.


  • Education — Region: Siuslaw Vision completed a qualitative report on education in the entire region, ultimately determining “that learning is very personal and people are looking for it to apply to exactly what they want to learn in their lives,” according to Siuslaw Vision Coordinator Stephanie Sarles. “In general, we discovered that our Siuslaw residents love and value learning and what it provides for them. They believe education is the key to whatever they want.” Food Backpack for Kids, foodbackpackforkids.com, continued to offer pre-packaged, ready-to-eat food to children who are food challenged.


  • Education — Siuslaw: 2019 marked lengthy executive sessions for the Siuslaw School Board, some about the hiring and subsequent firing of shop teacher Clint Tatum and some about community concerns. The school board approved the School Board and Superintendent Goals for the year, including increasing technology in the district, improving graduation rates, improving community involvement with the school and working to maintain and upgrade district buildings and grounds. In addition, the 20-year bond for Siuslaw Middle School was completed, the district dealt with a teacher suicide, School Resource Officer Brandon Bailey continued to work positively with students, raised its construction excise tax from to $1.35 per square foot, the district Facilities Advisory Committee sought input with a community survey, and more than 75 people attended a February board meeting to discuss the district’s policies on Commercial Advertising and Public Solicitation in District Facilities.


  • Health:

PeaceHealth Peace Harbor achieves close to full staffing. “The way we see it now, I think we’re close to the positions that we need to fill,” Peace Harbor Chief Administrative Officer Jason Hawkins said. “If we can keep them filled, we’re in better shape than we have been in a long time. … Speaking to the other nurses in times gone by, they’ve commented that it’s getting better.” PeaceHealth also ‘streamlined’ Medicare partners as it encouraged people to retain full coverage into the future.

WLAD and PeaceHealth created a new Mobile Integrated Healthcare program that will help reduce the rates of emergency room returns in the region.

WLAD and SVFR’s Community Support Team launched. “We are trained in mental health issues, grief counseling, crisis intervention and disaster response. We have widened our ability to respond to different calls,” said Coordinator Lori Severance.

Nova Health, a comprehensive provider of urgent care, primary care, physical therapy and musculoskeletal services, began offering urgent care services at its Florence clinic, 4480 Highway 101, in August.


  • Milestones:

1 year — Nyah Vollmar, local teen singer, began her professional career this year with the February release of “Empty Spaces,” along with a music video filmed in Florence, as well as “Flowers on my Grave” (August), “Midnight” (September) and “Maybe It’s A Christmas Song” (November).

2 years — City of Florence held its second annual Community Block Party and National Night Out this summer, working with city staff, Public Works and Florence Police Department

30 years — PeaceHealth Peace Harbor commemorated its anniversary in July as an opportunity “to celebrate 30 years of walking together and taking care of each other with the community,” said Peace Harbor CEO Jason Hawkins. “What I’m most proud of about this place is the people that work here. … PeaceHealth Peace Harbor has maintained the image that we’re a patient-first organization.”

40 years — Oregon Pacific Bank celebrated its 40th anniversary in December. OPB president and CEO Ron Green said, “This organization started with five local small-business people that had the idea that a local bank could make a difference for local people and local businesses. I’m really proud to say that 40 years later, that has always been our commitment and continues to be our commitment. It’s to serve the needs of Florence, to be a part of and contribute greatly to future success. That’s something to be proud of.”

50 years — Apollo 11 Moon Landing celebrated how humanity’s view of the universe changed forever on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and humans took their first steps on another planetary body.

55 years — Elliott’s Hilltop Acres Farm concludes school visits for area students after 55 years. “In 1957, my grandmother took animals to the school,” said Loni Schofield, granddaughter to the farm’s founders. “In 1964, one of the teachers asked if they could bring the kids up here, so we started bringing kids to the farm. That was 55 years ago, and sadly it is our last year.”

90 years — Camp Cleawox, an overnight camp in the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington council, celebrated its 90th birthday on June 29.

100 years — City of Reedsport celebrated its Centennial birthday on Aug. 6 with a carnival, concert and free admittance to the Umpqua Discovery Center.

125 years — Heceta Head Lightstation celebrated shining its light for 125 years in March.


  • New in 2019:

Brooke and Brian Kosten opened Dunesday Gaming, 375 Laurel St., an arcade and video game center open to all ages.

Patrick Looney opened Florence Maker Space, 1230 17th Place, as a workshop where people can pay to use resources and tools (florencemakerspace.com).

Florence-Yachats Connector, www.lcog.org/1068/Public-Transit, adds Saturday service.

Homegrown Public House, homegrownpublichouse.com, gets permit to open Florence’s first official brewery at 294 Laurel St.

KXCR Community Radio 90.7 FM is now streaming at kxcr.net.


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