The economy is not here for a rehab

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The News-Register, and our family, can say this about the Gwendolyn Hotel: it is not “our project”.

It’s no disrespect to Hugh Development’s proposal to build a sprawling hotel, restaurant and retail complex in place of three downtown buildings. However, our connection to this plan is a long and so far unsuccessful effort to sell two of these buildings.

The architectural drawings for the project have drawn praise, but there is opposition from people who do not want these buildings to be replaced by a project of this size in this location. As the debate continues – in the community and in today’s “pro-con” presentation – we want to provide historical and more recent context on the property.

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Jeb Bladine is president and publisher of the News-Register.

> See his chronicle

In 1976 we rented and moved into what is now called the News-Register Building at 611 NE Third St. When the adjacent O’Dell Tire Store closed in 1982, we rented this building and made it our service station and our newsprint warehouse. The O’Dell Building was constructed in 1904, the NR Building between 1912 and 1928, and both have undergone significant modifications over time.

In 1985, gas fumes revealed a leak in an underground storage tank under the sidewalk at Ford and Third streets. In 1986, our site cleanup effort prompted an informal “no further action” decision from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and later that year we purchased two properties at this intersection, as well as the adjacent buildings on Fourth Street.

[See also: Paddock: Rue the day aging buildings worth more dead than alive ; and, Clarke: Aim of Gwendolyn Hotel project to maintain, embrace]

We had no idea that 14 years later, DEQ would revive the leaked case, which is only now, after 37 years, nearing final resolution.

In 2000, we replaced the drive-thru portion of O’Dell gas station with the construction of a storefront and converted the building into newspaper offices. At the time, such renovation efforts made financial sense – a situation much changed today by building codes and regulations governing the preservation of older buildings.

Over a decade ago, the City of McMinnville building inspector told us that a major renovation of the two-story NR building would require near-total demolition and would not prove financially feasible. We believed that continuing the renovation of the neighboring O’Dell building would not be possible either, so we launched efforts in 2017 to sell these two buildings.

We engaged local entrepreneurs from the hospitality industry, civic institutions and growing business owners. And we’ve expanded our marketing to reach the interests of commercial properties statewide.

The response was the same from everyone who considered a purchase and renovation option: “It doesn’t hold up”.

In 2018-2019, we applied for a significant state historic preservation grant, available for deserving projects in McMinnville and other Oregon communities. A local committee with the downtown association, the town of McMinnville and members of the visitors association selected a different project which was later not eligible because it was outside the district downtown economic improvements.

The COVID outbreak in 2020-2021 has created new financial challenges in the face of the long and steady decline of the newspaper and printing industries. In 2020, seemingly on the verge of resolving the oil leak case, DEQ decided to require extended testing of the surrounding area.

In mid-2021, Hugh Development made conditional offers to purchase our two buildings and the adjacent Bennett building to the east. Hugh updated his design in response to public testimony, plans to excavate the entire site for underground parking, and awaits further public hearings and final city action to approve or deny his demolition requests.

This year, the DEQ has agreed to consider a no-action process with requirements that await approval from an adjacent owner and the city. Before the end of the year, the News-Register will leave its downtown buildings and we will reunite our press and printing staff at the Oregon Lithoprint printing plant at Miller Street and Riverside Drive in the industrial park of McMinnville.

In the future, we wonder if the combination of building code and historic building preservation laws does not become a form of government ownership. This issue will generate broader interest as the city considers new, even stricter requirements for downtown buildings and hundreds of other “historic” buildings and homes throughout our community.

Looking back, for 94 years our company and our family have played a significant role in the development and revitalization of downtown McMinnville, so we understand and appreciate the diverse responses to Hugh Development’s proposal. Perhaps if this project is refused, those most passionate about our old and increasingly fragile buildings will want to acquire them and keep them themselves for other uses.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

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