The first of six groups of people scoop ceremonial shovels of dirt during Tuesday’s streetscapes groundbreaking ceremony. From left, Benton County Commissioner Nancy Wyse, ODOT Area Manager Savannah Crawford, Rep. David Gomberg, Murraysmith Regional Manager Chris Link, Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lisa Watkins and Mayor Chas Jones. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Among those standing in the crowd for a streetscapes groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday afternoon was Randy Kugler, the former longtime city manager who was in place through the controversial couplet project and in the following years when the idea of a downtown redesign started to first pick up momentum.

“I’m very excited to see what the final product will look like,” Kugler said following a 30-minute presentation, which included various groups posing for photos with ceremonial shovels of dirt. “A lot of good people and the history attached to this project — a number of which are here, some have gone — but Philomath takes care of itself and they’ll be proud of this when they get it done.”

Current City Manager Chris Workman said that earlier this week, the Oregon Department of Transportation issued a “notice to proceed” to the contractor, which means everything is a go.

“There’s a lot of work that has gone into it and now there’s a lot of work still to be done,” Workman said. “We put good work into it and good is going to come back out of it.”

As Workman said during a Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon a few weeks ago, the actual work should be underway by November. The project is expected to run approximately 20 months.

Formally known as the Downtown Safety and Streetscape Improvement Project, the work area covers a stretch of Main Street and Applegate Street from 14th Street to Seventh Street. The bulk of the work relates to narrowing roads, creating more space for parking, widening sidewalks, installing pedestrian amenities, adding a two-way cycling route and adding “bulb-outs” to increase safety.

“Over the next two years, we’re going to be working really closely with the city of Philomath, ODOT staff and obviously the community, business owners and property owners along the corridor, to really keep folks informed as to what is going on,” said Savannah Crawford, ODOT area manager. “We want to make sure you are engaged and that you’re informed. A lot of work is to be done, so bear with us, but we will definitely have that coordination and communication.”

ODOT Area Manager Savannah Crawford talks about the positive working relationship with Philomath on the streetscapes project. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Workman and Crawford were among those who took turns at the mic during the groundbreaking ceremony on a city lot at the corner of 14th and Main. Mayor Chas Jones and State Rep. David Gomberg also shared remarks.

“I’m really excited about the idea of revitalizing downtown and attracting businesses, focusing on economic development and creating jobs in Philomath,” Jones said.

Gomberg said the project will result in a remarkable improvement for businesses and residents. “I think that not only you, but your kids and your grandkids are going to remember this special day as well,” he said.

Crawford described a positive working relationship with Philomath.

“This project really is a key example of an excellent partnership between cities and state,” Crawford said. “The city of Philomath coming together, working with ODOT, coming up with a vision and actually implementing a vision is great. … It has been challenging and I know there’s a lot to process, a lot of things we need to work through.”

The roots of a downtown improvement project started to come into focus following the 2007 completion of the couplet’s construction.

“There were plans even back then of coming back at some point and doing additional improvements to the streetscapes and to the highway itself,” Workman said.

Kugler said that at the time, the couplet project zapped everybody of their energy.

“We knew that there would be opportunities to make it better but the couplet itself was very difficult, very trying on the community,” Kugler said. “It was exceedingly difficult because that was a major change in the lifestyle and the fabric of the whole community and our point always was to give it a chance.”

In 2009, the Philomath Downtown Association initiated a study to look at how the downtown could be improved.

Current City Manager Chris Workman, left, and former City Manager Randy Kugler talk after Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Workman lauded those early efforts by the now-defunct Philomath Downtown Association “for the vision that they had going forward that really set the stage and did a lot of the groundwork that went into the project as we see it today.”

By 2011, the city had contracted with Murray, Smith & Associations (now Murraysmith) to begin engineering on a streetscapes project. Kugler and the downtown association organized community outreach to try to determine what the community would like to see.

“We had good councilors then and some are still members of the community and they had a vision,” Kugler said. “They had a vision and they knew it was the right thing to do, they knew it represented the future and they were going to go for it — sometimes at personal risk and professional risk.”

The project stalled in 2014 after the city failed to receive a key grant.

“What it did do is it gave us a very good scope of the project and what needed to be done and to really focus on what the benefits were going to be,” Workman said. “It laid another piece of that groundwork to build on moving forward.”

Two years later, ODOT notified the city that it had funding in place and the process regained momentum. In the following years, a series of stakeholder meetings and the gathering of community feedback occurred and a 2020 survey favored a “timber town” theme. More meetings were held to fine-tune design elements leading into this year.

County Commissioner Nancy Wyse, from left, Rep. David Gomberg, City Councilor Catherine Biscoe and County Commissioner Pat Malone listen to Mayor Chas Jones speak during Tuesday’s streetscapes groundbreaking event. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“The timber town theme was new — that wasn’t something that was envisioned back in 2009, 2010,” Workman said. “But I think it’s a good reflection of what Philomath. … We’re not a colonial town, we’re not an East Coast town, we’re a timber town and we want to keep that charm, we want to keep that gritty side of Philomath alive.”

Kugler, who served as city manager from 1996 to 2014, felt that once people accepted that the couplet was here to stay, then something like a streetscapes project could become icing on the cake.

“We had to get the cake baked and we got that in place and this is the topping,” he said. “I think people that live here now are going to say, ‘what a wonderful addition to the community.’”

The groundbreaking ceremony represented a key milestone in the long history of the streetscapes project.

“It has been going on forever — when I was here, we were still allowing horses and buggies to go up and down Main Street so that gives you some flavor of how long it has been in the works,” Kugler joked. “Philomath has always been a community about progress and putting the next step forward, and this took a little longer but good things are worth waiting for.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

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