UMATILLA COUNTY — When we set out to try to look back on the year that was in Eastern Oregon, we started with a list that grew ... and grew ... and grew. After a couple of days, the list featured more than 50 news events. That’s one notable story every week.
To start, each reporter submitted the most important stories from his or her beat for consideration; then the editorial staff of writers, editors and photographers ranked the Top 10, with an eye toward news that has most shaped Umatilla and Morrow counties in 2019.
Yes, it’s been that kind of year. From raging floodwaters in the spring, to the closing of the Hinkle Rail Yard, the list feature a wide-variety of stories that the East Oregonian newsroom covered in 2019.
Here are the top 10 stories of the year, as voted on by the East Oregonian newsroom:
Union Pacific lays off most of its Hermiston employees
The railroad played a central role in Hermiston’s origin story and was a reliable source of family-wage jobs for decades, but that chapter came to a close in 2019.
In March, employees told the East Oregonian that Union Pacific had laid off at least 80 employees at the Hinkle Rail Yard over the past few months and closed the yard’s hump. In May, the company announced it was laying off an additional 195 employees, leaving only a skeleton crew at the yard and closing the supply warehouse and mechanical shop.
Oregon’s senators called for answers from Union Pacific in a letter stating it would “devastate this rural community by hamstringing the economic opportunities and stability of the entire region.” They wrote that growers and other shippers in the area had already been complaining of major issues with Union Pacific after their first round of layoffs, and cited safety concerns that ex-employees had expressed to the East Oregonian in March.
The community responded by offering up services for families that had lost their income and putting together an emergency job fair to encourage people to stay in the area.
Heavy flooding puts communities underwater
Spring flooding filled basements and city streets with muddy water, collapsed a pedestrian bridge and left tons of displaced trees, river rock and other detritus.
During the second week in April, water poured from the McKay Reservoir into McKay Creek topping 2,800 cubic feet per second at its peak.
Fast-rising water flooded Community Park, seeped into Pendleton homes and led to the evacuation of 35 residents from Willowbrook Terrace to sister assisted living facility Elizabethan Manor. A cadre of community volunteers gathered to shovel city gravel into sandbags and help transport them to endangered homes.
Flooding was widespread.
Heavy rains also led to the Umatilla River running high and fast, partially collapsing a pedestrian bridge connecting Umatilla’s South Hill to downtown. Much of the area along the river between Echo and Pendleton resembled a lake. Water covered Noble Road near Hermiston.
Floodwaters also jumped the banks of Mill Creek, Iskuulpa Creek and West Birch Creek.
CTUIR buys two Pendleton businesses, begins expansion at resort and casino
2019 was the year the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation expanded its enterprises beyond the boundaries of the reservation.
Following a bitter, years-long legal battle between the former owners, the CTUIR bought the historic Hamley’s property in a July auction for $3.6 million.
The tribes put Wildhorse in charge of managing the operation, and the resort and casino has mostly kept the complex’s operations the same, although it does have plans to improve the western store.
Just two months earlier, the CTUIR bought another legacy Pendleton business: the Pendleton Country Club.
While the tribes’ main interest in the property is to preserve the creek that runs through the property, Wildhorse has also committed to continue running the golf course.
Wildhorse plans to make improvements to the clubhouse as it transitions the property from a private country club to a public golf course.
The CTUIR’s enterprise expansion hasn’t come at the expense of the resort and casino.
The Wildhorse started construction on its new bowling alley and family center with expectations that it will open by September. More expansion — a second hotel tower and an event center — is expected in the years to come.
Amazon offers $40 million in lieu of taxes for Hermiston project
In October, the Hermiston City Council and Umatilla County Board of Commissioners agreed to give Amazon a 15-year property tax break for a new development the tech giant has planned for southeastern Hermiston.
In exchange for not paying property taxes, Amazon promised to pay $40 million over the course of the 15 years, spread between the city, county, and other local taxing districts, such as Hermiston School District and Umatilla County Fire District 1. The city and county have not made final decisions on how their portion will be spent, but have discussed using it for mutually beneficial projects, such as paving Gettman Road in Hermiston.
The decision caused discussion in the community about the role of such tax breaks. While some pointed out that $40 million is much more than the taxing districts get each year from the bare ground currently there, others questioned why a nearly trillion-dollar company shouldn’t pay its full share of local property taxes.
The first Hermiston school bond in a decade passes by a narrow margin
An $82.7 million bond passed by voters in November will ring in the replacement of the Hermiston School District’s oldest elementary school, Rocky Heights, and construct a new school on Theater Lane. It will also fund an annex to increase capacity at the high school, elementary school site improvements and purchase of new property for future growth.
The changes will eventually result in a redrawing of elementary school boundaries to ease crowding.
The passage of the bond resulted from an election that kept supporters and dissenters alike on the edges of their seats until late into the night. Eventually, the measure was narrowly approved by 52.4% of Hermiston voters.
That success was the first of its kind in over a decade and followed a failed measure in 2017 for a $104 million bond, which aimed to replace Rocky Heights and Highland Hills, among other projects. This year, administrators and board members acknowledged the bond was too big an ask for the community.
It was the first bond to pass under Superintendent Tricia Mooney’s leadership. It was also the first time the political action committee Yes for Hermiston Schools sought campaign management from a third party, Pac/West Communications.
Round-Up breaks ground on new administrative and retail building; helps secure funding for BMCC rodeo arena and classroom space
The Round-Up’s extra-large parking lot wasn’t long for this world.
Less than two years after the Round-Up Association bought the neighboring Albertsons property and demolished the vacated building, construction crews fenced off the eastern half and begin building the Round-Up’s new administrative building.
The new building will allow the Round-Up to consolidate most of its administrative, ticketing, and retail operations under one roof.
The facility will also include an 895-square-foot lease space for a third-party company. Although the Round-Up hasn’t revealed who will lease the space, board members expect it to generate four to five full-time jobs and 40 part-time jobs available to high school and college students.
The $3.5 million project is being built with the assistance of $100,000 in public money through Pendleton’s urban renewal district.
The new facility is expected to be finished by the 2020 Round-Up, and immediately following the rodeo, the association will start work on the other big infrastructure projects it’s involved in.
The Round-Up is donating land west of the rodeo grounds to Blue Mountain Community College so it can build an indoor rodeo arena and classroom space.
BMCC secured $13 million for FARM II, the facility’s working title, in July and is now in the process of finding an architect.
Greg Barreto announces plans to retire after three terms in Oregon House of Representatives
Republican state Rep. Greg Barreto of Cove announced he will be not seeking re-election in 2020. He said the time has come to turn his attention toward family and his growing manufacturing business.
“It has been an honor and privilege to be elected and to serve as the state representative for Oregon House District 58,” he said. “The past six years have been an adventure and time of learning. I have enjoyed helping my constituents, passing legislation that is for the good of all Oregonians, and working for the great people of HD58. Thank you for this opportunity to serve and for the strong support I have received from so many.”
Barreto won his first term in 2014 after defeating current Pendleton Mayor John Turner in the Republican Primary and Democratic nominee Heidi Van Schoonhoven in the general election. Barreto was unopposed in 2016, and in 2018 he defeated Skye Farnam, an independent, in the general election.
Barreto is the founder of Barreto Manufacturing Inc. in Cove, and serving in the Legislature required easing away from the business. He said his children and employees asked him to come back and run the company. He feels it is time to return to that focus.
EO Media Group buys Bend Bulletin, Redmond, Baker City, La Grande papers
As newspaper companies across the county continue to struggle, with some media outlets shuttering permanently, the EO Media Group went through a growth spurt in 2019.
EO Media Group went to auction and beat two out-of-state competitors in July with a winning bid of $3.65 million to purchase the Bend Bulletin and Redmond Spokesman. The auction win came on the heels of June’s purchase of The Observer in La Grande and the Baker City Herald. According to court documents, the EO Media Group bought the two Northeast Oregon community newspapers from Western Communications for $775,000.
Western Communications filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January and sold all of its assets. The four acquisitions bring the company’s total number of newspapers and journals to 14.
Heidi Wright, EO Media Group’s chief operating officer, explained why the purchases make sense for the family-owned business.
“It’s reassuring for the future of community newspapers when a small independent company like EO Media Group can prevail, even when going up against the big companies that are buying up newspapers nonstop around the country,” she said.
BENT paid more than $27,000 to law enforcement
Operations Wildfire was one of the largest take-downs in recent years for the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team. And it came together in large part thanks to one confidential informant.
That man worked with the local drug task force from June until December 2018 to buy drugs from 63 people, according to Stuart Roberts, Pendleton police chief and head of BENT’s board. On Jan. 19, the team rolled out with warrants and arrested 54 people at homes across the area, plus several who were in jails or prisons.
State court documents revealed BENT paid the informant more than $27,000.
The public records and the exclusive interview with Roberts provided a rare look into the team’s inner workings.
Stop B2H Coalition remains charged up to defeat massive power line project
After more than a decade of anticipation, the Oregon Department of Energy and the Energy Facility Siting Council held a series of public hearings on the “draft proposed order” for the proposed 500-kilovolt Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line, or B2H.
The 293-mile, Idaho Power-proposed transmission line would run through five Oregon counties, and add a new substation in Boardman drawing backlash from affected landowners and groups, such as the Union County Board of Commissioners and the Stop B2H Coalition. The Stop B2H Coalition, a La Grande based group, was founded in 2015 with the intent of fighting the construction of the proposed line. Clad in yellow shirts, the coalition’s members became a fixture of the public comment hearings.
After months of public comments on the B2H the Oregon Department of Energy, which closed the public comment period on its “draft proposed order” in August, it was recommended that the state Energy Facility Siting Council approve Idaho Power’s application for a site certificate for the line.
On Nov. 12, the Stop B2H Coalition and Greater Hells Canyon Council filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pendleton. The groups alleged the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which have authorized the proposed line, failed to adequately review the potential environmental and other effects of the power line.
The Energy Facility Siting Council was unable to complete its review of the public comments during a meeting in December and chose to pick up deliberations in January 2020 before it makes a decision.