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Salem, OR

small town with potential still hampered by sticks - 1/9/2010
I grew up in Salem. It's a small town at less than 150,000 people but feels much smaller for its lack of cohesiveness and overall vibe. The pros are that it's an attractive town, amidst rolling hills and plenty of trees and flowers. It's in a central location: an hour from Portland, two at most from the beach and three from great skiing, not to mention the outdoor playground surrounding it that offers mountain biking, hiking, rafting, climbing, and hot springs. It's in the valley so it's rich in agriculture and the local food movement in Oregon is gaining serious ground. There are beloved microbreweries and wineries as well as the requisite coffee houses, but for some reason Salemites seem to prefer chain restaurants and strip malls -- thus the slim pickings on good, locally owned restaurants and shops (though they exist, and need your support). The area boasts mild winters that may or may not offer snow, a long growing season, and hot and dry summers. For kids, it's somewhat limited. There's the museum, a great library, the carousel along the waterfront, several parks, a skate park, and the new Kroc Center.

The cons? Well, it rains, a lot, and worse than that is the low-lying cloud cover. As the Capital, Salem boasts the state pen and the mental institution among its government buildings. There appears to be a growing meth issue. For a town this size, there are pitiful offerings for food, culture and entertainment--in summer you find the Art Fair, the State Fair, and World Beat, and some great year-round Wine and Food events that need more community support. Only one small natural foods market even though Salem is certainly large enough to support one of the bigger brands. Downtown is still somewhat run-down and just can't get its flow. They're trying to rejuvenate the waterfront. It would be great if Salem tapped into the vibe of what needs to be in a town for it to thrive--its leaders need to look at comparably-sized towns to get a fresh perspective. As it is, though, Salem's not in the running for a placement on any "Best Places" list, either to live or raise a family. Plus, right now, its unemployment rate is sky-high and the economy is in the dumps.


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