Keeping Above Water: Is Coastal Living in Jeopardy? Part IX

Life in the Siuslaw seeks to find ‘its own heartbeat’ amidst economic challenges

Jan. 17, 2018 — For Nyra Campbell, life on the Siuslaw has not always been easy. She initially came here to escape expectations placed on her as a high school senior, choosing a relationship and mushroom picking over the option of a four-year college. In her time in Florence, Campbell has found new love, had three children, worked a variety of jobs, owned a business and found ways to “keep above water.”

“I’m not a worrier,” she said. “I don’t worry about things, I guess. I’m more into super positive thinking, which I think has gotten me where I am in this town. With my background, I feel like I am not some major success. But we’re above water. And our kids are happy.”

Campbell and her husband, Derrick Vanduch, own West Lane Plumbing, and Campbell also works as a server at Waterfront Depot in Historic Old Town Florence.

“My past experience in life has been that things always work out,” she said.

Campbell grew up in Beaverton, a city that she says has a lot of options for youth. After her dad died when she was 16, she finished high school and moved to Florence two weeks after her graduation party.

“I just was over the whole, ‘Where are you going to college?’ question. I was tired of it. I thought I was going to go to Florence and pick mushrooms, because the person I met picked mushrooms and made lots of money. I thought, ‘This will be fun for a year,’” she said.

Twenty years later, she is still here.

In many ways, it has been a struggle. From being a single mom to working 14-hour days as a server, Campbell has paid her dues. She had to make new friends as a young person in a new town. She had to learn new skills. She had to find time to flirt with Vanduch, when they both worked long hours and her daughter was still a baby. It took two years before the two actually formed a relationship.

“Derrick worked at the auto parts store, and I needed brake fluid for my jalopy of a car. He was flirtatious and talkative. That was that. He was sincere and sweet,” she said. “I needed brake fluid all the time because my car was a total piece, so I would go in there. I had devised a plan early on to get the smallest amount of brake fluid I could so I could see him.”

Campbell couldn’t visit the “cute parts guy” every day, but it seemed like she stopped in once a week.

“I got lucky I guess. My husband is 11 years older than me, had never been married before, and didn’t have kids. So how that worked out is beyond my brain,” she laughed. “Most people our age have kids. They’ve been married. Or they’ve been through something. I feel like I brought more baggage into our relationship than he did by far. I was young and had a baby.”

Once the two got together, they began facing new challenges. They had a son, and then Vanduch switched from the auto parts business to plumbing.

“I would say, at that point, it was a seven-year struggle with on and off jobs with him in the plumbing industry,” Campbell said.

She described the apprenticeship process as needing both work hours and schooling. While plumbing can be a consistent business, Vanduch couldn’t get an answer to his applications at existing businesses in the area. At one point, he couldn’t continue with classes until he got more work hours.

“They basically said, ‘You’re two years ahead of school with no work hours to show for it. So we’re putting your apprenticeship on hold,’” Campbell said. “He’d been applying all over, but all the companies in town just weren’t hiring. … He had to write a letter that went to the board. They had a lot of meetings. Everybody within 200 miles within where we live said, ‘Oh you need a job, come work here.’ But nobody ever came through until he wrote this letter to the board and said, ‘Look, I tried but no one in town wants me. They need employees, but they don’t want me. I’m trying my best.’”

Vanduch eventually found a plumbing job in Eugene, but that brought its own issues.

“He was working for a company in Eugene, and I just had a baby. He would leave at 4:30 in the morning and come home at 10 at night. By then I had three kids and was working four days a week at a restaurant,” Campbell said. “That might have been the hardest year. You just know that you’re doing it for … a better life. And that’s just what kind of kept us going.”

Soon, the two were able to buy their own plumbing company.

“We're localized. We own our own company and we work in Florence. We’re doing all right,” Campbell said. “The problem right now is that we’re really, really busy. We have no employees. And we have no one who wants to stay. No one wants to work. It’s impossible to find employees.”

Like others in the Siuslaw region, West Lane Plumbing has a hard time finding reliable workers, even when the company has work lined up. For Campbell, it means she does the office work, but sometimes has to help on calls. She regrets this because West Lane Plumbing was able to employ two plumbers when it was just getting started, but both employees are gone now.

“Sometimes I’m setting toilets or crawling under houses or digging ditches. Between raising three kids and dealing with plumbing, my own job, the paperwork for the company, answering the phone and doing the billing … When he springs it on me, ‘Oh, nobody showed up today, can you help me dig this ditch, it’s got to get done.’ It’s like, ‘Um, I have 15 loads of laundry and a sink full of dishes and 12 people to call back.’ And that’s the biggest struggle right now. Juggling time.”

Now that the kids are growing up — they have a 17-year-old daughter, an 11-year-old son and a four-year-old son — Campbell is getting another view of the Siuslaw as the three go through school and navigate life in a small town.

“It’s not like our kids are close in age and I can condense my day around them,” Campbell said. “The oldest is in sports and she travels all over. And she as a job and a driver's license. The middle boy just kind of wants to take everything he touches apart, and he’s often covered in grease or dirt or something. And the youngest is hilarious and super active. They kind of have me spread out in different directions.”

However, she has noticed that her kids have a hard time staying interested in school.

“I loved all my teachers growing up, which is what drove me to do well. I don’t feel like that’s necessarily the case here. Not to say that the teachers are bad teachers. I just think that my kids are not engaged in the same way.”

Campbell is not sure why her kids aren’t as engaged. Perhaps it’s their personalities. Perhaps it’s the lack of programs at the school, cut by funding decreases. Whatever the case may be, getting her kids interested in school will lead them on a positive track for the future, Campbell believes. That may or may not include college, and may or not include the Siuslaw region.

“Parents are the best examples for kids. Neither of us went to college so they don’t feel like that’s important. I just don’t think my kids get the concept that they can do whatever they want. You’re always told that as a kid. But only now that I’m almost 40, I’m like, ‘Oh, I really could have done whatever I wanted.’ And I could still, probably today, if I set my mind to it.”

Campbell wants her kids to at least look at options outside the area, even if they eventually move back home.

“The area definitely has its own heartbeat,” she said. “Most people I talk to that have lived here move back. And I hear from everyone that they love Florence. They are moving from California or wherever and say, ‘We’ve driven all over and we just like Florence.’ Which to me is always interesting.”

Its Own Heartbeat

One of those people who moved away and came back is Ellen Huntingdon, who returned to Florence after attending college abroad in Tokyo. She has since established herself as the marketing coordinator at Oregon Pacific Bank and as the chairwoman for Florence Area Chamber of Commerce’s Downtown Revitalization Team (DRT).

“I think the area has changed, even in the almost five years I’ve been here since I finished college,” Huntingdon said. “When I first came back, I saw a lot of kids who, after they graduated high school, got jobs in town, which was a great option. Then, in the last couple of years, students I went to school with have been coming back to Florence. I feel like that’s almost an upward trend. The hard part is finding housing or decent jobs, which is what this is all about. There’s definitely the desire for younger people to move back to Florence, we just need to make sure there’s options for them to be able to live and work here.”

Through her work on DRT, Huntingdon has tried to bring more focus to small businesses and the City of Florence’s upcoming work to revitalize the Florence Urban Renewal District, which encompasses Old Town, Highway 101 from the Siuslaw River Bridge to Ninth Street, and Highway 126 from its intersection with Highway 101 east to Spruce Street. The main component of this is the ReVision Streetscaping Project, which is set to begin in earnest this spring.

“I’m really hopeful for the City of Florence,” Huntingdon said. “We’re all moving in the right direction. I think ReVision is going to be a great opportunity that is going to make Florence an even better attraction and increase the quality of living for people who are local.”

Huntingdon is uniquely positioned to see areas of growth from serving on DRT and working at Oregon Pacific Bank, which has a culture that promotes volunteering and community service.

“I see a lot more young people here,” she said. “I went down to do the trick-or-treating in Old Town this year, since I have a niece now, and I was amazed that there were so many young people and families with kids. The streets were just packed. Then we went down for the Christmas celebration and to see Santa. … There are definitely people in town who want to be here and enjoy living in Florence. I think people are gravitating toward places that have quality of life, rather than just having the best high-paying job.

“It would be nice if we could offer both.”

Florence City Councilor Joshua Greene has worked with the city and Florence Urban Renewal on the upcoming ReVision project. He also has a small business, The Archives, which restores and markets the iconic work of photographer Milton H. Greene, who is famous for his photos of Marilyn Monroe and other stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

“I would like to see more small businesses in Florence like ours, quite frankly,” Greene said. “I think the general reason why we don’t attract younger people who do things online, which is what I really am, is we don’t have that demographic here. I’m 63. I fit into the retirement scenario. But 20, 30 or 40-year-olds who want to have their business online, they want a hipper area. They’re not here, and we’re trying to attract those people. I believe that’s the wave of the next generation.”

Successes such as Siuslaw Broadband and Hyak’s fiber-optic network project could make online businesses more attractive and more viable in the Siuslaw region.

“They are going to need fiber and online capability for their functionality,” Greene said. “There’s a call for these types of businesses, whether it’s photography, graphics or gaming. All those things can be done from remote locations. I think we’re going to attract those businesses here.”

Huntingdon said, “The main thing to focus on for young people is getting more businesses that stay open a little later. We’re already seeing that with things that Homegrown is doing, or with City Lights Cinemas. There are businesses that are catering to a younger crowd.”

“As we get more and more younger people moving here, more and more services will be catering to them,” Greene added. “More restaurants will have different food menus.”

These elements work to make the area “hipper,” as Greene said, or at least more accessible to people who keep odd hours or who want to socialize in a setting that fits their demographic.

“Now more than ever, there is a place to have small businesses here,” Greene said. “Whether it’s a product-driven business or a service business, I think that online is going to be a key factor, just like having a thriving highway. With the rebuild of Highway 101, I’m optimistic we’re going to attract new investment and development, and Florence is going to grow up a little bit in a positive way. It’s coming. I sense it coming more and more now.”

Huntingdon agreed.

“I’m hopeful about the future and I think we’re in a good path for growth and development,” she said.

Growing Up In A Positive Way

A lot of the area’s drive for future growth comes from the residents themselves. In addition, those people created the Siuslaw Vision — which came, in its entirety, out of community support and interest.

Siuslaw Vision 2025 Co-Chair Meg Spencer said, “One thing that stood out again and again within the region was the level of agreement around needing a vision. I’ve never been part of a visioning process like this, even from doing the strategic plan for the library. Something like this is so unusual. I think that’s part of why this got so much momentum. There happened to be a lot of need, and need tends to drive action. It was a time of transition, a time of change.”

The Ford Institute held an alumni celebration in 2014 to commemorate a rural leadership training it had held in the past. It reunited nonprofit and governmental leaders, volunteers and engaged community members from throughout western Lane County, who realized it was time for a shared vision to bring together the community.

“At the time, there was new leadership in town and new leadership at The Ford Institute, but there were also people who had been here and already had seen how far the region had come. I think it was just a real synergy,” Spencer said.

Susy Lacer, a grant professional and Florence City Councilor, also served as a part-time coordinator for the Siuslaw Vision until this past December. “There’s power in the Vision. It was a grassroots effort from the beginning and remains grassroots. It is entirely community-led work,” she said. “The things that are happening now are because they are important to the community members, who are willing to step up. We provide enough of a framework, a little bit of support, encouragement, validation and those things, but it’s entirely community led.”

This grassroots group formed from 1,200 community members realizing that the Siuslaw region needed one common, unifying theme as it moved forward into the next 10 years. Of course, there are things Florence struggles with that Dunes City doesn’t; Mapleton and Siuslaw school districts have separate needs; Upriver communities like Deadwood may not have a lot in common with Old Town Florence. But the 18,000 people who make up the region have more similarities than differences, especially in regard to the Vision’s six focus areas: Working People, Happy People, Educated People, Connected People, Creative People and Active People.

People from all over the region have signed up for projects, including creating a Siuslaw region parks and recreation district, supporting local workforce development, establishing safe and affordable housing options and promoting public art. Every member becomes a Vision Keeper and is encouraged to follow their own passions within the Vision.

“What I love about the Vision is that it gives you that nudge, that little bit of organizational support, that little bit of, ‘Hey, yeah, we think you can do this,’ that makes it actually possible for people to tackle huge, crazy things,” Spencer said. “I think that a big piece of what the Vision does is giving people permission to go out and get stuff done.”

The Vision Keepers have “way more goals” for 2018, according to Lacer, and the community will see results in childcare, the parks district, partnership with the city and even a new community farmer’s market.

Spencer said, “I’ve come to think of us as a catalyst. All we are is the tiny bit of yeast at the very beginning that sort of starts that process. I think the things that are happening are happening because there’s so much other than the Vision involved. It’s passion, community spirit and a little bit of money from donors. All of that adds up.”

And the Vision fulfills its goals. The “Working People” category looks at bringing living-wage jobs to the region. The Vision hopes to contract three paid positions for three years, thanks to a $280,000 grant from The Ford Family Foundation.

“The people we hire are going to really step in and make that framework more solid,” Spencer said. “I think bringing in grant funds to the area to support these contractors hopefully does a couple things: helping our Vision move forward, and helping us hit more of those marks.”

In addition to working on the Siuslaw Vision, both Spencer and Lacer are involved with the Siuslaw Public Library District — Spencer as the library director and Lacer as the president for the board of directors. The library serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Vision.

While the Siuslaw Vision is only in its third year, the Siuslaw Public Library has served the region for 103 years.

Lacer said, “One of the reasons we picked the region that we did for the Vision was one, it matched the library district boundaries and two, it matched the Mapleton and Siuslaw school district boundaries. I don’t think that’s coincidence. I think it’s bringing together everybody, of all ages, from the whole area.”

According to Spencer, the two branches of the library serve an average of 500 people each day.

“We bring together that many people — it’s like three percent of our region’s population every single day. They’re getting together, mixing it all up and hopefully taking stuff out the door, hearing a program or whatever. It is a place where people of all ages, all backgrounds, all political persuasions literally walk through the door every day,” she said. “To me, that is the thing that helps create community conversation and creates a ‘town square.’”

According to Siuslaw Public Library statistics, 95 percent of library patrons still visit the library to check out physical books, but the library provides multiple other resources, including free internet, newspapers and magazines, genealogical research material, language learning lessons, Spanish language books, a play area and reading time for young kids and activities for older kids, as well as space for meetings, movie nights, craft times, tax prep and music jam sessions.

“What I want to do is just increase what people can walk through the door for,” Spencer said. “That is an exciting challenge for sure.”

One goal of the Vision is to create more community centers, whether that is through a future parks district or a dedicated building. In the meantime, the Siuslaw Public Library continues to take steps into that role.

“In the modern world, books and collection items are so fundamental, but creating community dialogue is also fundamental to what a library is meant to be and do,” Spencer said. “It makes perfect sense that we’re serving as the fiscal sponsor of the Vision. What has come out of the Vision has really fed into the library, and hopefully vice versa.”

Lacer said that community centers are things that multiple groups have expressed interest in, from the library to the schools, and from Lane Community College to area service groups.

“Community centers are one of those things that address all six elements of the Vision,” she said.

In 2017, Siuslaw Public Library was named a Catalytic Community Building Organization by The Ford Family Foundation. Twenty agencies across the state were recognized, including several cities, a chamber of commerce, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and social services — but only one library.

Lacer said, “It was kind of a different cohort for a public library to get involved with, but I think it speaks to the strength of our library, its uniqueness and the role that it plays.”

Spencer agreed.

 “I think that has so much to do with the staff, and so much to do with our patrons. I have worked with some fantastic libraries, but I’ve never worked for one that is supported the way this one is,” she said.

That support will continue as Spencer and the library follow through on goals set in a recent strategic plan. One of those goals is the formation of a library foundation.

According to Spencer, “The plan is to get that started by this summer, with the idea of doing some fundraising around the exciting things that people want to see. If we were to have a space that was a community center, we could triple our meeting space, and have it booked all the time. I’d love to have enough space to bring in really big exhibits, and I think the foundation will help make more of those things possible.”

And the library does not just focus on Florence. Just as the Vision looks at the entire region — Glenada, Dunes City, Florence, Deadwood, Mapleton and Swisshome — the Siuslaw Public Library has a thriving presence in Mapleton to serve the Upriver community.

“We are seeing crazy growth out there,” Spencer said. “That has a lot to do with staff who are really working to bring the school to the library, book groups, high school interns — and we’re going to start showing movies there. A lot of that is our staff members … but it’s just everything, and that’s awesome.”

She added, “Nowhere else Upriver do you have free internet access, or a place where you can come five days a week and see your neighbors. It’s pretty cool.”

Spencer and Lacer are joined by area artist and business owner Jo Beaudreau as the Vision’s second co-chair. Together, the women bring excitement and energy for the new year.

“I think the fact that we share the river and share the library helps tie us all together,” Spencer said.

Lacer agreed, saying, “It’s a pretty cool time to live in the Siuslaw region.”

Tied Together

The City of Florence has spent much of the last three years looking at ways to increase economic stability in western Lane County. One of those efforts was through the Housing and Economic Opportunities Project (HEOP), a group looking into necessary changes to Florence City Code to allow for accessory dwelling units and infill of residential zones, as well as looking at key areas to market to outside development.

Jesse Dolin is the city’s economic development catalyst. He works with area businesses, encourages startups and attends many meetings a month with Florence’s partners in economic development.

“Part of my learning is just making sense of all the organizations, understanding what they do and how we can best work together,” Dolin said. “We need to all come together and understand what everyone is doing so we’re not replicating our efforts and so we’re sharing the best practices that are out there.”

Dolin serves on several boards across the region, but, more importantly to him, he makes connections with people.

“It’s really all about relationships and connecting with all our regional partners and beyond,” he said, describing the various groups as puzzle pieces that work together within Lane County, the South Coast Development District, the Coastal Caucus and the State of Oregon. “In general, there is a great synergy among our partners, with the tribes and with the port. There’s a renewed spirit, like a renaissance of Florence. We’re really optimistic for 2018 to bring more opportunities.”

New economic opportunities are coming because of the amount of work put in by city and county staff, but also from a community hungry to invite the world to “Come See What We See” — one of the taglines for Florence Area Chamber of Commerce.

Area residents know the joys of living on the Oregon coast, with its temperate climate, positive quality of life, numerous recreation activities and friendly, giving people. As certain demographics struggle with finding housing or jobs, the focus moves to community organizations that can help provide services, such as Siuslaw Outreach Services, food shares in Florence and Mapleton and the Friends of Florence cancer bus. People also volunteer, taking their time, resources and money and plugging them directly back into the community. They get involved with the Florence Master Recyclers, work a shift at the Oregon Coast Humane Society Thrift Store, join a group such as PEO Chapter FQ, Kiwanis Club of Florence, Soroptimist International and Florence Oregon Rotary, serve on a board of directors or city committee, support youth and find countless ways to support their neighbors.

For Campbell, she continues to make the choice to stay in Florence; where her husband and children have a home; where West Lane Plumbing takes in business; and where she can work doing a job she loves.

“It’s a small town so everyone you know, knows someone else. Friends are pretty easy to make right away,” she said.  “When I moved here, it was a comfort zone because it wasn’t overwhelming. It was a small town and it was pretty close knit. And it still seems that way today.”

In the past 20 years, Campbell did go on to college, at Lane Community College Florence Center. She made her own opportunities, both with the business she shares with Vanduch and by staying for 10 years at Waterfront Depot.

“I love people. At work, I feel like I’m on a stage — I’m there to please. It’s my job,” she said. “I love the service industry and the whole combination of working with the kitchen and having connections with them and making customers happy on the floor. It’s really kind of an orchestra to make sure everything is effective. I love it. I can’t say the same for everyone I’ve ever worked with. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met another waitress that loves it as much as me. But whether you like it or not, it’s a great job to either sustain your life or get you from one place to another.”

She said that working families such as hers or people in her economic bracket “keep this town afloat,” but that people at higher incomes might not see it that way.

“There’s definitely two sides of Florence. If you don’t know the other one, whether it’s the low income or the high income, you might not experience it because you have no reason to,” she said. “I honestly feel like I’m better off than some of the people I went to school with. Yeah, I’m a waitress and it took me years to accept that this is my career, but I like it.”

She has faced her frustration with feeling like there aren’t options for her children by volunteering with the Siuslaw Youth Soccer Association to provide more recreation activities for area students and has enrolled her children in Children’s Repertory of Oregon Workshops (CROW).

“People forget to look at the bigger picture and that we’re a community,” she said. “They who were once young and had their own children don’t realize we’re trying to form young, productive adults. If youth had more opportunity, that would be an option. … I’m on the board of the soccer program in town that Erin Linton, one of my good friends, started. She kind of went on her own to see who wanted to see soccer grow. So she individually went around and found people, and that’s been awesome.”

She wishes that a community or recreation center could bring more activities for youth, possibly housing athletics and the arts in one place for all ages.

“CROW is a really great group that’s captured tons of kids that didn’t have any other direction to go in,” she said. “It’s kind of how theater is in the first place — totally intriguing for people who feel like theater may have been their only outlet. But the group that’s in the theater in this town… I mean, my kids are in two of the plays. And that group is just so hilarious. They’re all amazing, intelligent people that just want to express themselves in some way.”

As for the area, she finds the people friendly and engaging.

“It’s a small community, so it is a community. I can’t go through Safeway without saying hello to half the people in there. And there are lots of great eateries and we’ve got a new young scene coming on, it feels like, with newer professionals. That’s kind of exciting to see. In addition, I do like the city mayor and the city management right now. They're really making great strides to broaden what they’re doing with town. They helped a lot with soccer and that’s not the only thing.”

According to Lacer, “People are coming out of this time galvanized. When people are passionate, they make change.”

Campbell concluded, “In the end, after all is said and done, I really love this town. The people, the scenery, the general small-town vibe. It’s open-minded and beautiful, very beautiful. I forget that because I’m too like, work, work, working. But Florence definitely has its own heartbeat.”

Editor’s note:

This is the final installment in what has been a nine-part series running each Wednesday since Nov. 15. Over the course of the past two months, the series has explored a different topic each week related to the challenges we face as a small coastal community to meet the changing economy; the impacts of the West Coast’s affordable housing crisis and its ripple effect on the Siuslaw region; and identifying the issues related creating living-wage jobs to assure the region’s future.

In outlining what we determined would be a long-arcing series that would help us understand the issues, how they came to be and, ultimately, their solutions, Siuslaw News decided to focus on each of the following areas: Community and Social Services (Nov. 15); The State of Housing (Nov. 22); How the issues began (Nov. 29) Community Involvement (Dec. 6); The “Volunteer Economy” (Dec. 13); Jobs and the Workforce (Dec. 27); Economic Development (Jan. 3); Education (Jan. 10); and The Future of Life in the Siuslaw Region (Jan. 17).

We’d like to thank everyone who contributed their personal stories, expertise and perspectives — both on and off the record — as well as community organizations, city officials, educators, business owners and area leaders.

If you missed any part of the series and would like to read more, each segment is available under the “Special Series” section on the Siuslaw News website, located here: Special Series Archive

— Ned Hickson, editor