For the Good of All

In today’s political climate, society often seems fractured and divided. That’s not always the case for local governments.
Photos and story by Rodger Nichols

Columbia Gorge Community College.

Cooperation for the common good isn’t lost on local officials in Wasco County. One of the best examples is a significant addition planned for Columbia Gorge Community College.

CGCC President Marta Yera Cronin praised the level of local cooperation.

“Something that became immediately evident to me upon my arrival last July was that one of the major strengths of this community is the level of collaboration between agencies,” she says. “I had never before experienced collaboration to such an incredible degree. Clearly, it is what really moves the needle community-wide.”

The story begins in 2013 when Oregon state Reps. John Huffman of The Dalles and Mark Johnson of Hood River secured a $7.32 million allocation from the state for an advanced technology center at CGCC’s Hood River campus if the college could raise a matching amount. Despite concerted efforts, the college did not find a funding source for a match of that size. In 2015, however, legislators renewed the allocation and set a timeline with an expiration date.

Last year, as the new deadline approached, local governments found ways to work together to meet the goal.

A key piece of the economic puzzle was income from the local Enterprise Zone, a program that rewards companies that invest locally by not taxing improvements on the land for as long as 15 years. In partial return for lost tax revenue, companies seeking Enterprise Zone tax deals must negotiate payments with local Enterprise Zone sponsors. Locally, the zone has been jointly administered by Wasco County and the City of The Dalles until recently, when the zone was expanded and the Port of The Dalles joined the administration of newer agreements.

In the past, funds from this source have been used to pay off bonds issued to extend The Dalles city water out to the Discovery Center, to build a practice fire tower for Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue, and to improve curb appeal for schools in North Wasco County School District.

The latest 15-year tax abatement agreement was with Design LLC on behalf of Google for its newest construction. The city, county, and port agreed to allocate a significant portion of the payments from Google to pay off revenue bonds issued to raise $3.5 million toward the required match. In February 2019, the college issued a full faith and credit bond obligation to complete the match.

With a total $14.6 million secured, the college will build a 24,000-square-foot skill center. It’s designed to give students hands-on practical training in skilled professions—initially construction trades, maintenance and repair on aircraft, and HVAC installation.

This skill center furthers CGCC’s idea of “middle college” by offering dual enrollment in both high school and college. As early as 2016, some students received their CGCC two-year diploma and their high school diploma in the same week.

The college also will add a student housing complex. In a survey last year, nearly three-quarters of the students who responded said finding affordable housing in the area was a challenge. More than 90% said having on-campus student housing would make CGCC more attractive to prospective students. But the real motivator for housing was the shocking discovery that 10% of students surveyed said they were staying in a shelter, a car, or on the street.

Columbia Gorge Community College will add a skills center and student housing to its campus, thanks to cooperation from a number of local entities.

None of the bonds issued for the local match will cost local taxpayers a dime. Enterprise Zone funds will cover $3.5 million, while tuition and student housing rental revenue will pay off $3.8 million. The state’s share of $7.32 million is part of a statewide bond issuance. The college is not obligated to repay that.

There has been marked cooperation all along. Both North Wasco County School District and Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue have projects that could use some of the zone funding, but each sent letters of support for the college project as the highest local need. The Port of The Dalles will provide bridge funding of up to $1.5 million if needed during construction. In all the cases, the public agency's votes to do so were unanimous.

Other agencies are involved as well. Mid-Columbia Economic Development District specifically highlighted the development of the Columbia Gorge Community College Student Housing and Skills Center in its annual ranking of needed projects.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which tests and licenses aircraft mechanics, has been supportive.
“They came from Portland twice to walk us through the process of setting up an approved school,” says CGCC Outreach Coordinator Dan Spatz.

The Columbia Gorge Regional Airport, jointly owned by the city of The Dalles and Klickitat, supports the project because it will eventually provide skilled mechanics as the airport.

Construction hasn’t yet begun. The college is still in the design phase of the project, with construction beginning later this year and completed by 2022. In a nod to college history, the training facility will be known as the Treaty Oak Regional Skills Center. Prior to 1989, CGCC was known as Treaty Oak.

“I don’t think I have had a conversation with a person who did not agree that this skills center is really needed to train workers for the fastest-growing industries in the Gorge and will have a profound impact on the local economy,” Marta says.

An added benefit to having student housing available, she says, is the ability to serve students in the outlying areas who may not be able to commute or to take online classes.

“It’s all about improving the community,” says Wasco County Commission Chair Steve Kramer. “It’s a win-win-win for everybody.”