How Independence is becoming a ‘smart rural community’

Special Reports

Businesses pour in, citing city's welcoming environment

INDEPENDENCE, Ore. (KOIN) — More than two decades of hard work and planning, coupled with millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, is paying off for the City of Independence. New businesses are popping up all over downtown, in a city with a population estimated to barely top 10,000.

“You hear kind of the typical story of small towns with the mills closed, you know the local economy dried up,” the city’s economic development director, Shawn Irvine, said. “Independence in the ’80s and ’90s was that classic small town that was kind of starting to close up and fade away. The community really didn’t want to see that happen so they pulled together, created a plan … we’re beginning to see the fruits of that labor now in a big way.”

One of the most noticeable fruits of those labors: A 75-room boutique hotel that opened this past October on the city’s riverfront.

The Independence opened in October 2019 and is the first hotel in the city (Hannah Ray Lambert)

The Independence is the first hotel in the city. It hopes to draw in wine country tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, with features like a 24-hour bike workroom. A large number of its customers, though, have been athletes competing at nearby Western Oregon University, according to Sondra Storm, co-owner of Embarcadero Hospitality Group, one of the developers behind the hotel. They’ve had several sold-out nights already, despite opening closer to the slow season, Storm added.

As a boutique hotel, The Independence didn’t have to follow any specific layout or design plans handed down by a chain. That gave them the flexibility to choose furniture made in Oregon, art from a gallery down the street, and salon-quality hair products from another Independence-based business.

The Independence incorporated art, furniture and other products made in Independence and the surrounding areas (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“Those partnerships are so important to us both in terms of our values and how we want to be in the community, but also for the guest experience,” Storm said. “People love to see something new, to see something that’s representative of where they’re staying.”

About 50 people work at the hotel, but its presence stimulates the local economy in additional ways, Storm said.

“When somebody is staying overnight they are then shopping in the town, buying gas in the town, eating outside of the restaurant,” she said. “We have a great restaurant here, but if somebody is staying a couple of nights they’re absolutely heading out of the hotel and grabbing lunch, grabbing coffee and tea in the community.”

Maybe heading out to grab a beer at Gilgamesh’s pub when it opens this spring. The Salem-based brewery’s upcoming pub, music venue and (eventually) distillery will be it’s third location.

Ryan Booth is the co-owner of Parallel 45 Brewing (City of Independence)

Or, just a couple blocks away, locals and visitors will soon be able to grab a beer from the newer, self-distributed Parallel 45 Brewing. The company started operations last May just off of Independence’s Main Street. They’ve been working on renovating their building (the former city hall) and hope to open a tasting room this spring.

Co-owner and head brewer Ryan Booth said when he and his partner were deciding where to start their company, they were impressed by the growth in Independence and how the city treated businesses.

“They really really support their businesses and are all about making this town a much better place,” Booth said. “It was very easy to come here.”

That’s a compliment Irvine hears a lot.

“Independence is kind of a classic small town,” he said. “We’re easy to work with, we can make things happen quickly and we’ve got a real sense of community here.”

Numerous businesses have popped up within half a mile of each other in downtown Independence during the past couple of years (KOIN)

Becoming a ‘well-rounded small town’

Irvine is, of course, happy to see a great diversity of food, beverage and hospitality establishments moving in (did we mention the Champagne and dessert bar Jubilee, also on Main Street?). But he emphasizes that they “want Independence to be a well-rounded small town” and are exploring even more avenues for improvement in the Vision 2040 plan, under development now.

The city’s fiber to the home program is one step they’re proud of, Irvine said.

“Broadband is something that people in the city tend to take for granted now,” he said. Not having fast, reliable Internet access can hinder students and workers, keeping them from accessing higher wage jobs.

Taking advantage of that broadband network: Indy Commons. Coworking spaces are a trend more often seen in metropolitan areas, but Indy Commons opened just under three years ago, catering to small business owners or nonprofits with big goals. People can rent their own office space on a monthly basis, or drop in for a day to use the hot spot or a meeting room.

Winston is the office dog at Indy Commons, a coworking space that opened a little less than three years ago (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“I think it really gives people a launching pad to start a business or have an option of getting out of a home-based business … have a Main Street presence and get a little more involved,” owner Kate Schwarzler said.

Irvine wants the city to continue exploring how to use its broadband system to draw in more high-tech businesses, as well as help the town’s children, farm workers and other residents “gain the skills to access the digital economy that folks in the city are already able to access.”

“How can we show that a rural community can be a smart rural community … and not just become another small town that dries up and blows away,” he said of the challenge still before them.

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