Monday, April 03, 2006

Watch Hermiston grow

The large water tank on Highway 395 used to sport the slogan "Watch Hermiston Grow" on one side and had a large slice of watermelon painted on the other. The slogan has been painted over, but it's really no longer needed. The signs of growth are everywhere. And the water tank, which used to be on the outer edge of town is seeing development of government facilities and new housing in its shadow.

The city's logo still includes a watermelon slice, celebrating the locally grown produce which helped give the city an identity when it was just a little farming town.

Compared to more urban areas of the West, Hermiston may still look like, and in fact may still be, a little farm-market town, but in rural Eastern Oregon this little town is on the move.

For the 10 years I lived in California, when people asked me where I was from, I rarely used Hermiston as a reference point. Even when I was going to college in Western Oregon most people had no clue where Hermiston was, so I gave up trying to explain it. I used to ask people who expressed curiosity about my upbringing if they had ever heard of Pendleton. As host of the Pendleton Round-Up and namesake of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, even people who have never been there had at least heard the name.

I went to school in and was graduated from high school in Echo, about 30 miles west of Pendleton and a few mile south of Hermiston. But back then, more than 20 years ago, Hermiston was the social center for all off us farm and country kids looking for fun and girls (or boys) on a Saturday night.

When my family first moved to Oregon in 1973 it was a 15 mile trek into Hermiston for grocery shopping or other necessities. Big shopping trip, for school clothes or other amenities, might involved a trip to Pendleton or even Portland or more likely to the Tri-Cities, Wash. The Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, Wash.) weren't much farther than Pendleton from our little country house and they had a mall and fancier restaurants, and a nuclear power plant where material for our nation’s first atomic weapons were refined. Prom dates mean going to Tri-Cities for dinner and then trekking back to Echo for the dance. But for pretty much everything else, Hermiston was the place. When mom and dad said they were going into town, they didn't mean Echo, they meant Hermiston.

An A&W restaurant, the kind where carhops brought your order on a tray that hung on your window, was the only drive-in or fast-food-type place in Hermiston when we moved in about 10 miles from town. So when McDonald’s came to town it was a big deal. But there have been a lot of big deals since then. Now there are several fast-food places in town. There is even a Starbucks on the main drag.

Back as a young reporter I covered City Hall in Hermiston and my big scoop was being the first reporter to get the words Wal-Mart in print when a new retailer was coming to town. In the years since then Wal-Mart not only build a story there but expanded it into a Supercenter and the company also build and operates a distribution center out by the airport between Hermiston and Stanfield.

The latest big deal was the recent opening of a Home Depot store just off the main drag.

The city, which had maybe 5,000 people when my dad bought his aerial spraying business and moved us there in 1973 has tripled in size. In 35 years time, from 1970 to 2005, the city grew by more than 10,000 people, from 4,893 people to 15,027 according to the latest population estimates.

I was back in the old stomping grounds over the weekend, cruising "The Gut" as we then-teenagers used to call Highway 395 between the old McDonald’s to the plaza across from the 7-Eleven (yea, it was a big deal when 7-Eleven came to town too). My dad took me on a tour around town, showing me some of the new housing, government and commercial developments that moved in in the years since I moved out, much of it in the last handful of years. Out by the airport, near the newly opened Stanford Hansell Government Center, is a narrow street leading from the National Guard Armory and Blue Mountain Community College branch campus back into a residential area. In the span of maybe a quarter to a half mile, you can see what Hermiston was and what it is becoming. A small pasture with cattle is surrounded on three sides by the signs of the encroaching city on the once rural area. Just down the road a few hundred yards is a new church. The sign out front saying "future home" has been hand-edited to read "new home" to let prospective congregants know the facility is open for the business of saving souls.

But will the town's agricultural soul be saved?

There is still a lot of irrigated farm ground around and farmers and ranchers are still an important part of the local economy. But where the biggest houses around once belonged to farmers and ranchers and where Lamb-Weston and Simplot potato plants were once king and queen, the revolution has begun. Doctors and other professionals now boast some of the biggest houses. Simplot has shut down a major part of its operation and Home Depot and Wal-Mart are sporting the biggest crowns.

It isn't just California or Oregon's Willamette Valley where agriculture land is being gobbled up for houses. It's happening in places like rural Eastern Oregon too, in a town once known for it's unbeatably sweet and flavorful watermelons.

On one hand I'm proud to see that that little town is growing up. But it's a little sad too to realized the industry that drew my family to that little farming town more than 30 years ago, the industry that helped feed, nurture and employ so many in that town, along with the railroad and the Army depot, is losing its influence on the child it reared for so many years.

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