This article is the eleventh in a series profiling the varied and amazing nominees for the 2009 Alice B. Toeclips Awards, which will be presented to five winners at the Alice Awards & Auction on March 7th. We won’t be able to profile everyone, so read the nominees’ descriptions online. This profile was written by BTA correspondent and Salem bike advocate Eric Lundgren.
For a single dollar, in 2004 the Union Pacific Railroad offered the City of Salem an unused bridge across the Willamette River. Some thought the offer might not be good enough. Going into a crucial City Council meeting, Mayor Janet Taylor was one vote short.
So she pulled out a painting and told a story. And that did the trick.
Salem is a town in transition, and bicycles are getting new attention. In September the League of American Bicyclists recognized Salem as a “bronze” Bicycle Friendly Community. The League singled out Salem’s efforts in encouragement and engineering for recognition.
But a few years ago this might not have been expected. When Mayor Janet Taylor was first elected in 2002, she was widely regarded as the pro-business candidate. Business development is still important to her, and the relations pay off in interesting ways.
Her relationship with Sanyo Solar is one of them. Back in October, Sanyo broke ground and became the anchor tenant in Salem’s Renewable Energy and Technology Park, where they will produce the wafers for solar photovoltaic cells.
Late in February, after the Salem Sustainability Summit, Sanyo Solar brought to the city one of the first bicycles assisted by their new Eneloop batteries to come to the United States. Mayor Taylor rode one and later showed it off in city council, saying, she was “totally in love with it.” She noted it could “sure save a lot in gas” and that it could be “revolutionary” for Salem. She plans on buying an Eneloop bike in October, when they become generally available for sale in the United States, and hopes to commute occasionally to the office on it.
Though when Taylor talks about cycling and trails, it’s clear her heart is with kids and recreational cyclists. She focuses on the extensive trail network in Minto-Brown Island Park, a 900 acre refuge of reclaimed river bottom land, and notes that “a lot of the commitment gets started there.”
She recalls fondly her first bike, a blue Schwinn with a basket on the front. “My aunt bought it for me and surprised me when I was ten.” She remembers the falls, the skinned knees, and all the fun.
Another project dear to her is the Downtown Vision 2020 plan, a community-wide conversation and planning project designed to ensure that “the City Center is a vibrant, regional, year-round regional destination for employees, visitors and residents.” It has a special focus on “pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths and streets [that] connect the adjoining neighborhoods and communities to and from the City Center.”
Mayor Taylor also loves history. Compared to many of Oregon’s cities, Salem has preserved a high proportion of 19th century buildings in its downtown core. One of the losses was the old City Hall. The first thing Mayor Janet Taylor points out in her office in new city hall is a painting of the old one, a brick building from the 1890s that was demolished in 1972.
She recalls the city council meeting in August of 2004 when council was deciding whether to buy the bridge from Union Pacific. “There are ten or 12 special votes that will always stay with you,” she said, and it was one of them. Councilors and the public had expressed concerns about operating costs, conversion costs, and environmental abatement costs.
But, she says, there had always been a “dream in the community” to tie Wallace Park to Riverfront Park, and to create safe bicycle and pedestrian links across the river. With a second bicycle and pedestrian connection to Minto Island Park, the Union bridge would link 1200 acres of parkland and create a 26 mile loop, she says.
At the council meeting Mayor Taylor held up the painting. “Do you know what happened to it?” she said. “It got torn down. It’s a parking lot. This is our history. This is a part of our heritage.”
The Statesman Journal noted the next day that “Applause broke out…the measure, which moments before seemed doomed, passed by one vote.”
A few days after the city council meeting where the “fate of the railroad bridge hung in the balance,” the Statesman editorialized that “it could have become an expensive junk-removal project. Instead, it will be the prized feature on Salem’s riverside cycling, jogging, and walking trail.”
Mayor Taylor continues to work hard and sometimes talk tough on the vision. Indeed, in her State of the City address earlier this year, she noted that City efforts towards the proposed Minto Island Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge – currently in the planning phase – were stuck on a second parcel on Minto Island and that “the city could consider exercising our right to eminent domain” in order to complete the vision of public parks and connections.
The long view matters. The bridge for the Salem, Falls City and Western line opened in March, 1913. It was used for maybe a half century. Soon, in April 2009, Salem residents will get to celebrate its opening a second time. With a new interest in bicycling and walking, Mayor Taylor and Salem residents are looking for a second chance much longer than 50 years.