MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. (AP) - No city in Oregon has been affected more by a piece of punctuation than Milton-Freewater.
While a hyphen joined the towns of Milton and Freewater in 1950, consolidating the cities’ downtown areas remains a challenge.
Highway 11 becomes South Main Street, historically Milton’s downtown area, as drivers enter town from the south. It then splits off and heads for Walla Walla, bypassing Freewater’s former downtown which is clustered around North Main Street to the northwest.
This awkward marriage of downtown areas creates an exceptionally long Main Street, with the whole northern part untouched by the city’s main thoroughfare.
This development, along with other factors including the city’s proximity to the more prosperous Walla Walla, has contributed to large swaths of vacant and underutilized storefronts on Milton-Freewater’s Main Street.
The most recent effort to revitalize the city’s sagging downtown area is the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit established in 2012.
Alliance Director Randy Grant said a plan to improve Main Street has been proposed every decade but never materializes.
“It never goes anywhere because it never pushes through the grassroots,” he said.
The alliance hired SERA Architecture of Portland and have had a series of public meetings to gather community input.
The latest meeting was held at a packed Milton-Freewater Community Building March 16, with officials from the Milton-Freewater City Council, the Milton-Freewater Unified School District, Umatilla County and Blue Mountain Community College in attendance.
Instead of a traditional meeting, attendees sat at tables featuring a map of Milton-Freewater in the center.
Audience members were asked to not only mark where they live and their favorite spots in town, but potential sites for downtown improvements.
Popular proposals included a parkway that runs alongside the Little Walla Walla River, the planting of trees along Main Street to unite the disparate downtown areas and a rail line that could transport passengers through town or into surrounding vineyards.
With the recent incorporation of The Rocks District viticultural area, expanding Milton-Freewater’s wine industry was a frequent topic of discussion.
Although not discussed at the meeting, boosting involvement from Milton-Freewater’s Hispanic community has also been a continual talking point. Despite comprising more than 40 percent of the population, Latino involvement in city government and civic life is virtually nil.
Unhappy with the lack of Latino presence at the first community meeting, the alliance held a meeting specifically for Hispanic community leaders to provide input.
Grant said Latino leaders’ concerns were in lockstep with many of their Anglo counterparts, with an overall emphasis on expanding the local economy.
“There’s more ownership from our Hispanics than we give them credit for,” he said.
Using the ideas generated by the community members that attended the meetings, SERA will return to Milton-Freewater May 11 with a basic plan for Main Street improvements.
Grant said creating a comprehensive plan is key to the city’s revitalization, as community members will use it to leverage private investment from developers for the needed improvements.
To kick off community efforts, the alliance organized a leadership group to create a project that can be built between July 15 and July 19.
The completed project would be used as an example to Milton-Freewater residents of what a revitalization project could do.
Proposals for the kickoff project include creating a community meeting place in a vacant lot by McLoughlin High School where a Dairy Queen used to stand.
Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info
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