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Volunteers unite in hyphenated town

Public gathering space in the works in front of Mac-Hi in Milton-Freewater.
Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on July 24, 2015 5:50PM

Marcos Saldana, a senior at Mac-Hi, and two other volunteers team up to build a gabion wall from stones Friday in Milton-Freewater. The wall is part of a community gathering being constructed at the high school.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Marcos Saldana, a senior at Mac-Hi, and two other volunteers team up to build a gabion wall from stones Friday in Milton-Freewater. The wall is part of a community gathering being constructed at the high school.

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Milenko Matanovic, of the Pomegranate Center, scores lines in the concrete Friday in Milton-Freewater. He joined a large group of volunteers constructing a community gathering at the high school.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Milenko Matanovic, of the Pomegranate Center, scores lines in the concrete Friday in Milton-Freewater. He joined a large group of volunteers constructing a community gathering at the high school.

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Volunteers are spending several days building a community gathering place at the high school in Milton-Freewater.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Volunteers are spending several days building a community gathering place at the high school in Milton-Freewater.

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Volunteers who worked Friday on a community gathering place at Mac-Hi referenced this to-do list hanging on a canopy near the worksite.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Volunteers who worked Friday on a community gathering place at Mac-Hi referenced this to-do list hanging on a canopy near the worksite.

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An exuberant team of volunteers wasted no time getting to work on Milton-Freewater’s newest public gathering space.

After officially kicking off the four-day building project in front of McLoughlin High School Thursday, volunteers had already laid concrete, erected columns, made significant progress on a gabion wall and were beginning to install a mosaic by Friday morning.

“Milton-Freewater is going to take charge of its destiny,” Milenko Matanovic said.

Matanovic is the founder and executive director of the Pomegranate Center, an Issaquah, Washington-based organization that’s partnered with the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance to hold a series of leadership workshops and facilitate the planning effort for the gathering space.

The project is meant to spur community buy-in as a part of a alliance-coordinated grassroots campaign to revitalize Milton-Freewater.

After several public meetings to solicit input, architects unveiled a revitalization plan that incorporated emphases on city history, the area’s growing wine industry and the Walla Walla River.

While understanding this vision will take years to realize, the gathering place project was meant to be completed in less than a week.

If organizers’ desire for the project was community buy-in, they’re off to a good start.

According to the alliance, 161 total volunteers signed up for the event, with even more unconfirmed.

Man hours weren’t the only things contributed.

Alliance Director Randy Grant said dirt and rocks were donated while concrete and trees were bought at discount rates. Local professionals like plumbers, electricians and city employees also loaned their expertise and labor.

Besides construction, volunteers also served free meals, made banners and put the finishing touches on a mosaic.

Local artist Jean Ann Mitchell supervised the creation of the mosaic, which depicts a river accompanied by vegetation and wildlife.

Although her usual medium is water color, she was asked to take the lead on a theme for the gathering space.

While volunteers were tepid on Mac-Hi and ice cream themes — the gathering place used to be the site of a Dairy Queen — they were much more receptive to the river idea.

“Walla Walla doesn’t even have the Walla Walla River,” Mitchell said.

In addition to differentiating Milton-Freewater from its neighbor across the border, Mitchell said a river theme promoted the idea that the hyphen between Milton and Freewater was as much a defining trait as a piece of punctuation.

“It keeps them separate, but channels and flows between cities like a river,” she said.

After consulting with mosaic artists and collecting stained glass donations, Mitchell and a small team of volunteers created the expansive mosaic in a week.

While the ice cream was dropped on the cutting room floor, it won’t be completely forgotten.

Jim Stanton is a member of the project’s steering committee and was close friends with the Martin family, which owned the old Dairy Queen for 30 years.

Stanton said the Dairy Queen was a gathering place for Mac-Hi students before it changed ownership a few times and was relocated to Columbia Street.

The building was used by the Milton-Freewater Unified School District for a number of years before it was torn down.

Stanton said he liked the idea of reclaiming the land as a social spot for youth, which will soon bear a bronze plaque in memory of the Martins and the gathering space that preceded it.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.







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