Overview of a City in Trouble - July 2015
This is an overview of current conditions and problems facing the residents and leaders of Longview, Washington from the perspective of a resident of only nine years in Longview. Living in Longview was wonderful, and the city has a beautiful setting and offers much in the way of potential quality of life. But Longview is in serious trouble governmentally and economically, and the infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating due to lack of maintenance and poor decisions by the city’s leaders. Only the active participation and commitment of the citizens to take back ownership of their city and community and to hold their city leaders accountable for their decisions will allow this city to survive and thrive. Much must be rapidly overcome in order for Longview to once again be a wonderful city in which to live.
Longview, Washington was founded in 1923 by R. A. Long as a lumber mill town and seaport. It is one of the few truly planned cities in the USA and reflects the southern culture of its founder. R. A. Long planned the city in detail with an eye to the future. He designed the city on a tree-lined spoke street system around a Civic Circle green and built the Monticello Hotel, Train Depot, Columbia Theatre, non-denominational Community Church, School and Library to serve his new city.
Desirable Qualities -- Climate, Affordable Housing & Geographic Location:
Longview has a milder climate than Portland, OR due to its direct proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia River channels the marine weather through the Coastal Mountains straight east to Longview where the Cascade Mountain Range abruptly rises and the Columbia River turns south to Portland. This means that Longview is heavily influenced by the marine weather whereas Portland is influenced by the weather from eastern Oregon and Washington funneled through the Columbia River Gorge. Longview Summers are marked by morning marine overcast which clears by noon with temperatures seldom over 85 (F) with little humidity and generally about 10 degrees (F) cooler than Portland. Winters typically are mild with heavy rains and overcast. One can count on a few days of snow with temperatures seldom below freezing and about 10 degrees (F) warmer than Portland.
There are beautiful residential neighborhoods, especially around Lake Sacajawea (the city’s major central park) and on the hills overlooking the city. Housing prices are very low compared to surrounding areas and investors have been buying the lower priced houses for rentals and future resale on speculation that conditions in Longview will improve in a few more years. Abundant wildlife (deer, elk, etc.) can be seen just minutes from downtown Longview. Travel across town is easily accomplished within less than ten minutes any time of day or night, although many of the streets are in severe need of repair.
It is only 1 hour to Portland, OR and 2 ½ hours to Seattle, WA. In addition, the Pacific Ocean is only an hour drive as is the scenic Columbia River Gorge, and the Cascade Mountain Range with Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Site is less than an hour drive. Geographically, Longview is conveniently located on the Interstate 5 corridor and Columbia River.
Historic Venues Struggling:
The historic Columbia Theatre has been restored to its original 1920’s glory and has wonderful acoustics. Private donations funded the restoration with the idea that the Symphony and other performance groups would have a home. It offers a wonderfully diverse selection of live travelling shows and concerts throughout the year. Unfortunately, the Theatre is struggling to survive since so many local events (including most Symphony concerts) are now staged in the new tax-supported community college auditorium, which was designed to be a multi-purpose lecture hall/classroom and performance venue and, in my opinion, has inferior acoustics (there is no blend of sound until the last row of the college auditorium) and uncomfortable seating compared to the Columbia Theatre. The college auditorium is fine for lectures, small plays, and solo or small musical ensembles, however it is too small of a venue, acoustically, for anything larger. Another drawback to the Columbia Theatre is its location which, though in downtown, appears industrial, and restaurants are not easily accessible within walking distances of the Theatre.
The historic Monticello Hotel on the Civic Circle is now closed due mainly to the fact that most local events formerly held at the Hotel were moved to the new tax-supported Cowlitz County Regional Conference Event Center when many local organizations became no longer locally controlled. The owners of the Hotel have consistently supported and actively contributed to the welfare of the community, but the community has not supported the Hotel in kind. Supposedly, new management is in the process of taking over the Hotel, but to date there has been no substantial public evidence to that effect.
The Longview Country Club was founded in 1925. It was a thriving institution in 2006, offering the finest dining and active social life in the area in addition to having one of the area’s most beautiful golf courses and a nice club house. Now the Club is another casualty of the current economic state of the region and is struggling to survive. In an attempt to attract new members, the Club has lowered its standards by abandoning new membership requirements and joining fees, lowering monthly dues and fees, and failing to enforce Club codes for dress and behavior. Club sponsored social activities and dining opportunities have been severely scaled back resulting in a declining “active” membership. This Club has become just another of the many “golf” clubs nationwide which are struggling to survive. Economically, this Club has one of the best golfing packages in the region and by returning to being a Country Club with high standards featuring an active club sponsored social life and dependable dining opportunities, it could once again be a thriving asset of the region.
Another historic venue is the Rutherglen Mansion, which has deteriorated to a state reminiscent of “Tara” after the war in “Gone with the Wind”. This mansion had gone through many transformations after it ceased to be used as a family residence the most recent of which was as a restaurant / bed & breakfast / reception venue. It has now been sold (it is rumored that it’s once again for sale) and there is some question if it will reopen any time soon.
It is the pervasive apathy towards the city’s history and a lack of community sense of ownership for that history which has led to these historic venues’ struggle to survive as vital cultural centers of the region and community. The Columbia Theatre, Monticello Hotel, Country Club, and Rutherglen Mansion are not tax-supported and must raise their own revenue. Indifference and unwillingness to support and maintain these historic venues, meanwhile expecting them to constantly provide free services to the community, on the part of Longview’s citizenry and leaders is resulting in significant losses to the cultural welfare and livability of the community. The community as a whole must support these historic venues or they will cease to exist except as memories.
General Conditions Spring 2006 to July 2015:
When I moved to Longview in 2006, it was a delightfully under-rated city, although shopping and dining opportunities were and still are extremely limited if not totally lacking. Shopping consists of mainly second hand shops and low end stores -- even the Macy’s is like a high priced repository for their cheapest and shoddiest merchandise which they could not sell elsewhere. There are few fine restaurants and a predominance of low class bars, taverns, and fast food joints. Most people, who have the economic means, go to Portland or Seattle and often even further distances for shopping and recreation. Shopping on-line, though not always the most desirable, has become a necessity in order to purchase quality merchandise not available locally since it is virtually impossible to special order anything.
The public schools are not the best -- reflected by a high drop-out rate, however there are many fine private and parochial schools as well as the community college. Longview and the surrounding county have not recovered from the nation’s economic collapse and the unemployment rate is double that of more populous areas. Crime is relatively low compared to surrounding larger communities, although there is visible public drug use and trafficking and few good paying job opportunities as jobs are being eliminated.
People actively support their local charities and there is a sense of responsibility, especially on the part of more affluent citizens, to give back to the community – far more so than in much larger communities in which I’ve lived. The tendency is to be fiscally conservative with a progressive social conscience. People are very friendly, helpful, and courteous. They actually know, help, and support their neighbors.
There’s a blossoming cultural life which includes a symphony and live theatre. Community celebrations such as “Squirrelfest”, “GoFourth” (for the Fourth of July including days of cardboard boat races, lumberjack contests, concerts and fireworks) and the summer concerts at the lake are well attended adding much to the life of the community.
When I moved to Longview in 2006, I felt as if I had gone back to a gentler time and I loved living in this community.
Public Water Supply Quality Problems 2013 - Present:
It is now July of 2015, and Longview is no longer a desirable city in which to live! The main reason is the change in the public water supply 2 ½ years ago from the Cowlitz River to wells in the Mint Valley industrial area. The new water plant and wells were placed in an area known for toxic industrial waste contamination which has not been cleaned up. During a recent Citizens Water Committee meeting it was reported that herbicides had recently been recorded showing up in the Mint Valley water source -- which the city staff dismissed as probably lab technician errors due to contamination from performing personal home gardening and yard work on their days off. According to city archives, water in this area was determined as unfit for a public domestic water source by engineers in the 1920’s, which is why the Cowlitz River was chosen for a public water source. City staff and officials either did not know their own city history and failed to research their archives or ignored this information.
Effects of the Water Supply Quality Problems:
Immediately with the water source change, residents were noticing problems with the water. The problems have not gone away. People are noticing: increasing adverse health effects from bathing in the water and ingesting it including headaches, joint pain, stomach upset, major skin problems and sores, etc.; large and small appliances and plumbing being damaged; decreased water flow; hot water tanks and toilets failing; dishes, glassware, flatware (including stainless steel) and cooking utensils being destroyed; paint jobs on cars being damaged; laundry being destroyed; shower tiles and doors pitted; sinks and toilets permanently stained and etched; and the list goes on. This bad public water forces residents to: buy bottled water for drinking, food preparation, and dish washing; rinsing with bottled water following bathing in order to avoid skin rashes, severe itching and sores; taking laundry out of area to be laundered; and washing their vehicles out of area; etc.. Black sludge has come out of faucets and showers, and the water has a strong foul odor and bitter taste. The good side of this water chemistry is that mold and mildew will not grow in the moist environment of the bathroom (however, note that yeast will not activate when making bread if city water is used). Dining out is now problematic since most area restaurants and bars (including the tax-supported Cowlitz County Regional Conference Event Center) are not using filtered water for their food preparation and drinking water. It’s like living in a high-priced third world country.
The water quality from the Mint Valley wells is not considered environmentally safe enough to use in the annual summer flushing of Lake Sacajawea and water is being drawn from the Cowlitz River at the former public water supply plant site for this purpose. However the city claims they cannot return to this source for public drinking water. The Mint Valley water has killed fish and established plants, and animals refuse to drink this water if they have another option. The Mint Valley water source and plant may be acceptable for industrial use, but not as a public domestic water supply or for anything impacting the environment.
Comment from a Representative of the Washington State Dept of Ecology:
A representative of the Washington State Dept of Ecology privately stated that the chemistry of the water for Longview has been changed dramatically to remove bad elements found in the Mint Valley water source, and that it is now dissolving decades of chemical build-up in the water mains. He further went on to say that this means that some individuals, who may be sensitive to the excessive release of these chemicals, may experience adverse health effects (poisoning, etc.). His admonition: “If the water looks bad, smells bad and/or tastes bad then it is probably best to assume that it is not safe to drink.”
City Council & Staff Response to Water Quality Problems:
The city staff maintains that the water is safe and that these problems are only minor cosmetic issues that the residents will just have to accept. The city also maintains that the city is not liable for damages since the city is not required or liable for guaranteeing the quality of the water delivered to the customer at their home faucets. During an August 2014 city council meeting immediately following public testimony regarding the damage being experienced from the water, one member of the city council joked repeatedly about the water saying that he wasn’t concerned about the water because he had heard that silica helps to prevent dementia and he was going to go home and drink a lot of the water.
In fairness to the city council, they finally did authorize a study this year with a citizen’s committee to review the water problem in response to the persistent complaints of residents and extensive regional negative news media coverage. However the citizen’s committee is tightly controlled by city staff and the city council member referenced above with their vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It is not allowed to function and operate as an independent committee and their recommendations for remedial action may or may not be considered at the sole discretion of city staff and the city council. The city council does not take this problem of bad water seriously and seems to think that residents will eventually accept the status quo.
The city has attempted to solve some of the water problem by regularly flushing the water mains into the streets. However, an additional problem is developing in that the chemistry of the flushed water is reportedly damaging the street pavements, sidewalks, and the storm water system. This will entail additional repair expense, and meanwhile the city council is diverting funds collected for storm water system maintenance to other pet projects such as street beautification of the southern entrance to the city.
Water Quality Remedy Forecast:
Estimates are a minimum of three to five years will be required if and when the city council decides on a remedy and the average household water bill base rate may increase by an additional twenty to seventy dollars per month to implement a remedy. The city council has the legal ability to issue bonds for projects without citizen input or vote, and then pay off the indebtedness incurred by increasing the monthly utility rates to the residents. This is how the move from the proven high quality Cowlitz River water source and Fisher Lane Water Plant to the problematic Mint Valley Water Plant (which I’ve been told has major serious design flaws) and wells was accomplished, and how a remedy to the current water problems will be funded.
Out-migration from Longview is already occurring due to this problematic public water supply and is resulting in declining property values. Waiting three to five years for a remedy and charging substantially increased rates to solve a problem created by the city’s bad decisions is not acceptable. Six months to one year to implement a remedy could be possible if the city would agree immediately to return to the Fisher Lane Plant and the Cowlitz River and then worry about ranney well systems etc. later. If this water problem is not resolved rapidly, Longview may well become a city of only those who cannot afford to live elsewhere due to economic and/or physical constraints, while those who can afford to live elsewhere choose to not live in Longview and businesses fail or refuse to locate in Longview resulting in further erosion of property values and availability of funds for public services.
Issues to Consider Before Moving to or Starting a Business in Longview:
If you are considering a move to Longview, WA., or establishing a business there, make certain to thoroughly investigate the public water problems and which water districts in the area are served by Longview water sources. Do not rely on the city to provide this information or the Realtors to disclose this issue. City staff and officials do not want to acknowledge that there is a problem because they have a vested interest to justify the millions of dollars spent on the Mint Valley water plant and wells, and Realtors are reluctant to address the water issue for fear of driving down the real estate market further. Do your own research – check the editorial pages and articles of The Daily News (www.tdn.com) for the last two years, talk to residents from different areas of the city and attend city meetings to hear the testimony of residents. You need to decide for yourself if you think the public water is safe and good enough to live in Longview or establish a business there.
Surrounding Communities to Consider:
If you must live near Longview, I would suggest avoiding Longview until this water issue is remedied, and consider nearby surrounding Washington communities such as Kelso, Kalama, Castle Rock, Cathlamet, Woodland (Woodland is the only city nearby which does not fluoridate its public water), or in Oregon the communities of Rainier, St. Helens, Columbia City, or Clatskanie (Oregon levies local and state income taxes). Generally, housing prices will be higher than in Longview.
Longview has much to offer in its geographical location with scenic beauty and strong neighborhoods of low-priced quality housing. The residents are courteous and helpful. Crime is relatively low. Shopping, dining out, and cultural opportunities are extremely limited, however Portland, Seattle and Vancouver B.C. are easily accessible. Employment opportunities are limited. The public schools are not the best, but fine local private and parochial schools (some students are bussed daily to Portland area private schools) and a community college are available. The infrastructure is in need of repair due to deferred maintenance and misguided decisions of city leadership. Longview must remedy its water problems or out-migration will accelerate resulting in lower property values and the city’s economy and tax base will continue to decline. Longview has much to overcome in order to once again be a wonderful city in which to live.
LRD | Longview, WA