For most travelers journeying along Highway 30 between Astoria and Longview, Clatskanie is the town you drive through on the way to Portland.


But the city's image as a sleepy way station for commuters and coast visitors may not fit for much longer.


Times are changing around the region, and the same real estate boom that's affecting Astoria, Warrenton and surrounding areas is showing signs in Clatskanie as well. Factor in new business growth, and you have a rural city in transition.




Clatskanie was once a logging center


Clatskanie hasn't always been a quiet town. In fact, officials say the city is entering a new cycle of growth that echoes a previous period in history, when it thrived.



The city emerged as a busy logging and fishing community in the early part of the 20th century, with the advent of the railroad and the building of the Columbia River Highway.


Deborah Steele Hazen is editor and publisher of the city's newspaper, the Clatskanie Chief.


She's a fifth generation resident, and the third generation in her family to run the paper. She said Clatskanie has weathered ups and downs over the years.


"When I was a little girl in the 1950s. Clatskanie had a very vital business district," Hazen said.


But commerce declined in ensuing years as nearby Longview, Wash., grew, and logging's heyday waned.


The local economy picked up again about 40 years ago, when the Wauna Mill was built. There was little change until recently, when new projects were approved on the Columbia River at Port Westward.




New industry comes to town


Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl is enthusiastic about the recent influx of industry to the waterfront property north of the city, which is owned by the Port of St. Helens.


The site sports a new gas-fired PGE plant slated to go online this summer, and an ethanol plant under construction, slated to open next year.


"Port Westward development is a big factor in bringing Clatskanie to the forefront publicly," Pohl said. "The excitement for me is to see these high tech businesses come in."


Another proposal, still in the permitting stages, would also bring a coal re-gasification plant to Port Westward.


Add to that the liquefied natural gas terminal proposed for nearby Bradwood, and the town is looking at a something of an industrial boom.


Pohl said economic growth is happening just in the nick of time.


"We used to have drug stores, a car dealership. As timber and fishing declined, the only thing left became the Wauna Mill," she said. "It's still the largest employer."


The PGE plant will employ about 17 full time workers; the ethanol plant will bring about 80 jobs. While it's not a huge employment bonanza, it brings up a local issue that's been a problem before - not enough housing.




Housing shortage an old problem


Hazen said that currently 28 percent of Wauna Mill workers live in Clatskanie.


More would have joined the community when they were hired, but there have been few places available over the years for sale or rent.


As a result, Wauna employees often commute from Longview, Astoria, and other area cities. Hazen sees that as a loss for Clatskanie's community vitality.


"We lost that social capital. Future mayors, city councilors, school board members," she said. "Fresh blood, new ideas are lost if people can't live here."


She said new industry at Port Westward will also encourage small business growth in town.


"We've suffered a decline in the retail district. We even declined in population for awhile," she said. "With a vital small-business community, you have a commitment to community overall."




Not just any growth will do


Mayor Pohl welcomes the changes happening in her city, but she's not naïve about the possible consequences.


"We want to focus on sustainable growth, something that will last," she said. "We have a very good planning commission."



The city has created what Pohl called a "footprint" for downtown, and new businesses must fit in with what's already there. The city also requires design review, and new projects go before a five-member committee.


Pohl said Clatskanie differs significantly from Warrenton, which has acres of flat, buildable land that will soon see Home Depot and other stores built there.


Clatskanie's topography - ample wetlands and hilly terrain - could limit similar growth. She said no big box retailers have approached the city so far.


Pohl has experience as a planner in other Oregon communities, and that has led her to favor a mix of business opportunities as the path to balanced growth.


"I've seen what can happen when a city relies too much on service industries," she said adding that foresight at the government level is key. "Places I've seen get in trouble - growth came and they didn't have a plan."


Now that growth will bring new citizens to Clatskanie, Pohl wants balance in that realm, too.


"We need a mix," she said. "We want retirees, service industries, and other industry here, so everyone is prosperous."


Also key is having jobs and housing for locals, so people born and raised here can stay.


"Young people who want to come back here have had to go elsewhere to live," she said. "Now we're slowly building up, so they can come back after college and live and work here."




Clatskanie Woods paves the way


Tucked away in the woods off a street on the east end of town is the Clatskanie Woods development. It's a joint venture between owners Beau Weidman, Peter McWilliams, Chuck Eng, and Pac Rim Homes. Eng owns Pac Rim.


Together they formed Clatskanie Woods LLC. The company plans to build 63 homes on the 28-acre site during the two-year project.


Weidman said the development offers a variety of options to potential homeowners: 1 and 2 story houses, attached townhouses, cottage homes, and three estate lots. A future phase may be developed as a gated community or more townhomes.


Just one model home is built so far. That house already sold to an investor for $429,000. Realtors will use it initially as an office while they sell off other plots in the platted neighborhood.


So far, much of the infrastructure is done: streets are paved and sidewalks are in, complete with atmospheric lampposts.


Prices will start from the mid $200's for smaller dwellings to the $400s for larger homes.

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