MILTON-FREEWATER - U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith will speak at Saturday's grand opening of the $3.9 million renovation of Orchard Homes.

Built in 1965, the complex was started by a group of growers to provide adequate housing for their workers. Additions were built in 1975 and 1980, but the facility had deteriorated since then and had become a source of frequent crime problems, according to city officials.

City and Orchard Homes officials say the renovation has changed that.

"It was horrible," Assistant City Manager Linda Hall said of the old apartments. "Things have improved so much. I love to see the stuff they have for the kids now. They look so happy playing there."

The renovation project was made possible by a $1.8 million USDA Rural Development Loan, a $1.3 million grant from the same source, and more than $805,000 in Oregon tax credits purchased by Washington Mutual. The project, which was completed 45 days ahead of schedule, began in August of 2003.

"All of the buildings were exposed concrete block with very little insulation," Bruce Kohler of The Neel Management Team said. "There was no air conditioning in any of the buildings. All of the units are or nearly are 30 years old. They were worn out. Many of the living conditions were poor."

All of the roofs have been replaced, insulated siding now covers the concrete block structures, about a third of the water lines have been replaced and new, vinyl windows have been installed.

Exterior lighting also was added, and there's new asphalt in the parking lot and driveway area, new fencing and a new playground.

Interior changes include the installation of air conditioning in all units, along with new heating units in the apartments. There are also new refrigerators and ranges as well as new floor coverings and paint. In addition, Kohler said most of the water heaters, shower stalls, plumbing, counter tops and cabinets have been replaced.

Five units were totally remodeled to provide fully-accessible handicapped units. In addition, tenants can now enjoy a remodeled and enlarged laundry room.

The spruced-up office building now holds a community room, which used to be storage space . Measuring 920 square feet, the room can be used for family socials and tenant parties. The Orchard Homes Board of Directors meets there, social service agencies use the space during their visits to the project and Blue Mountain Community College holds English classes there.

"The residents are very pleased with the improvements," Kohler said. That's probably why the only remaining vacant units will be filled next week, which means there may not be room for cherry pickers arriving later this spring.

The fully furnished apartments rent for $308 for a one-bedroom unit to $438 for three bedrooms. Kohler said about 70 of the families receive rent subsidies. All of the families at Orchard Homes are considered year-round farm workers, and 65 percent of their annual income must come from agriculture to be accepted at Orchard Homes.

Saturday's celebration also will feature remarks from Milton-Freewater Mayor Lewis Key, and tenant Lupe Romero. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be managed by Walt Roloff, president of the home's board of directors.

Grand opening

Location: Orchard Homes is at 311 N. Elizabeth in Milton-Freewater.

Time: 10 a.m., Saturday.

Schedule: The grand opening will include dancers, pinatas, music and tours of the facility.

Contractor: W.C. Construction, Elgin.

Architects: Gerald Mosman of Walla Walla and Don Trail of Spokane.

Board of directors: Walt Roloff, Leonard Brown, Terry Morris, Tom Waliser, Glen Gibbons, Tracy Larso and Christine Wallace.

Manager: Sheila Ruport.

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