Philomath Mayor Eric Niemann only has a few days remaining until his term expires on Dec. 31. Niemann is finishing a two-year run in the mayor’s seat that he won during the November 2017 election.
Niemann’s service to the city has also included a seat on the City Council from 2015-18. He succeeded Rocky Sloan as mayor in January 2018. Mayor-Elect Chas Jones will be sworn in on Jan. 4.
The Philomath News recently sat down with Niemann for an interview and is presented here in a “question-and-answer” format.
Q: What went into your decision to not seek a second term as mayor?
A: Good question … I’ve got a lot of family commitments right now; I have a lot of job commitments and life commitments. I’ve got aging parents, I’ve got aging kids … and I had to make the hard decision of lead, follow or get out of the way and that I’d rather be a dad than a mayor.
Q: Reflecting on your two years in the mayor’s seat, how would you describe the experience?
A: It’s been eventful. I would say it has been extremely rewarding and it’s been extremely challenging. Particularly in 2020 — if you picked any year to be the mayor, boy, I picked the one.
I think it’s been rewarding from the standpoint of the number of relationships that I’ve been able to forge and some of the good I’ve been able to do for veterans, for people of color, for various nonprofits throughout the city as well as for our city staff.
It’s been challenging in terms of some of the issues, I think particularly around growth when you have something like seven subdivisions going on right now. … so there’s been a lot of growth and I call that the glass half full, glass half empty issue. Either you’re happy about the growth or you’re upset about the growth and the answer is “yes” — it’s going to happen.
I grew up in Houserville, Pennsylvania. It has approximately a population of about 2,000 people — about half the size of Philomath. It was about 3-1/2 miles from Penn State University, a large state university campus. So every time I go home, there’s more houses, there’s more apartments, there’s more everything. And when I drive around here, there’s more apartments, more houses, more everything. When you’re close to a large state university campus, it’s important to understand that dynamic that as the university grows, the communities around it will grow.
The statistic I use a lot is that in 1999, Oregon State University had 16,000 students at the main campus. Today it has 25,000, so it’s increased by 9,000 students and you’ve got faculty, staff, support service personnel, supporting those additional students. Where do they live? Some can live in Corvallis, some choose to live in Philomath and so with only being 3-1/2 miles from Oregon State University, you see some growth. … So, that has some impact.
Certain business owners that are dependent upon customers, that’s maybe a good thing. People that don’t like change or want to keep Philomath small, I could see where that could be a negative.
Q: What would you identify as the top highlight of your term?
A: I can say probably without a doubt the Paul Cochran Memorial Park. I think it was a significant gift from Beverly Durham to the city of Philomath and I learned a lot about Paul Cochran, Class of ‘66 from Philomath High School, and how he volunteered for service in Southeast Asia and was killed in action. Following his legacy, I think, drove me to do a lot of things here while I was in office.
I think it prompted me to look at other veterans who also made the ultimate sacrifice and there are eight of them in total within Philomath. I researched all eight of those over the last two years. I think the Cochran story was the catalyst to do that. I think it had a residual impact on other things I did but it’s certainly been a highlight. I think there’s a lot of individual stories in that that have been meaningful to me and something I’m proud of.
Q: COVID, racial equity, politics and so on must be challenging for folks serving on a public board. What’s your perspective on those challenges?
A: Philomath is a good place. Philomath translates in Greek as “love of learning” and we’ve learned a lot in 2020. We’ve learned about racial equity, we’ve learned about how to treat our neighbors when they’re stricken by wildfires. We’ve learned about what it’s like when COVID hits and people need PPE or people need blood or people need food. Probably the highlight of this year for me has been the level of giving and philanthropy that has come out from the people in Philomath when we were at our worst … I think the people of Philomath were at their best. They stepped up in innumerable ways to help others.
A good example recently is how Timber Towne Coffee partnered with June’s Kids Kloset and collected 85 coats as part of a coat drive for kids that are in need. I think I saw something on TV, when you don’t have a coat you think about it every day. I think that’s an illustrative example of some of the goodness that has happened in our community and I’m proud of our community for showing up in 2020 when things were at their worst. Again, I think it brought out reflections of our best.
Q: Is there anything that you wanted to accomplish that didn’t get done?
A: Obviously, I think more work on the veteran park I think was hoped for or planned and it didn’t come through. We had a grant canceled from Oregon State Parks and Rec and we also were not able to have the Siletz Youth Cultural Exchange that we received a grant from the Siletz Tribe, so I’m hopeful that will happen in the future.
We also planned an emergency preparedness training from the Emergency Operations Group — Dave Busby from Corvallis Fire and Bryan Lee from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office are planning to do a training at some point with all the lessons learned of all of the wildfires and how Benton County responded. I think that’ll be something good for the future.
Q: Do you have any advice for the incoming mayor?
A: Like the word that I gave him at one of our last meetings was everything is “figureoutable” and I think it’s important to be patient and be flexible because there will be things that you can’t see that will happen and be resilient. Obviously, 2020 has helped me in that area but I think it would help any mayor in these trying times.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on what you think the biggest issues are going to be down the road for Philomath in 2, 5, 10 years?
A: Our No. 1 issue is clearly the water treatment plant. The current plant we have was built in 1985, it was intended to be a 20-year plant and we’re in Year 35 — we’re near twice the intended life and we’ve got to replace it. And so that process will happen next year. I’m excited for a groundbreaking for that but it is going to be an expensive project; it’s something where the whole community is going to have to get behind … it will be very impactful.
Second, the Streetscapes project is on the horizon as well in terms of changing the aesthetic look and feel of downtown Philomath and I think that will be exciting and certainly people can be involved in helping design what that looks like and helping us get through some of the challenges, I think, with making that level of construction on Main Street and Applegate.
The third one would be our ongoing inclusivity efforts. I think we’ve got a good start in terms of our inclusivity resolution but I think it’s an ongoing process without end and so, we do have the Benton County Historical Museum exhibit coming up in January and February with Oregon Black Pioneers and I think that will be something that everybody should take an opportunity to visit and take in.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I haven’t decided. I’m kind of thinking things through; there’s a couple efforts that I’m still trying to help the community with, I’m still a member of the American Legion and I’ll still help with Philomath Youth Activities Club. Past that, TBD (to be determined).