Fire-ravaged Detroit relies on tourism for recovery
The town of Detroit, Oregon, was devastated by the Labor Day fires that destroyed much of the Santiam Canyon area last September. Now, the town is focused on recovering, rebuilding and hoping for more visitors, as tourism drives the area’s economy. We hear from Detroit Mayor Jim Trett on how their Independence Day weekend fared and what he expects for the rest of the summer.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now once again to Detroit Oregon. It is one of the communities that was hardest hit by last summer’s Labor Day fires. Many of the city’s homes and a ton of its businesses were destroyed. Now, it’s dealing with historically low water levels which are threatening an already iffy summer tourist season. Mayor Jim Trett joins us to talk about this past holiday weekend and the city’s future. Mayor Trett, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Mayor Jim Trett: Thanks Dave. Thanks for having me back. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Miller: What does the Fourth of July usually look like and sound like in Detroit?
Trett: Usually it sounds very loud. We’ve been fighting fireworks for years up there.
Miller: You’ve been fighting fireworks for years, you said?
Trett: Well, illegal fireworks up there. We’ve known for years it’s not the best place to do that kind of thing. But we’ve had people come into town, think that’s the place to do it. This year was very, very quiet. We really appreciated people understanding the dryness of the situation and our situation in general. So, we heard one on Saturday night and a couple on the Fourth. Other than that, it’s just fireworks over the lake.
Miller: All it took was for half of the area to burn down and people didn’t use illegal fireworks, is what you’re saying.
Trett: Yeah. Well, and we had a lot of people, we still have people out there, hurting. So if anything went off, they heard from their neighbors very, very quickly that it wasn’t appreciated, to stop it. That might not have happened in years past.
Miller: The planned fireworks did happen as usual. Was there any conversation about not having them, either out of safety or out of just sort of taking a year off, to not throw fire in the sky?
Trett: It was discussed and looked at. We worked with the U. S. Forest Service. They have the right to say yes or no on that . We looked at the safety aspects very, very closely. We have people in town who said no, we shouldn’t be doing it. But we felt it was necessary, vital, to get back to some kind of normalcy in the community. Forest Service looked at it. One of the big things is, when we set ours off, they go out over the lake. So anything falling was coming into the water, and doing it that way. So the Forest Service was comfortable with it. Our local fire department examined it. They were comfortable with that. They had engines on standby at the site where they were sending them off. So they were looking at a lot of different things and we felt the safety was there. If it had not been, if we were not very comfortable with that, we would not have done it. But the Forest Service is going, yeah, we think it’s okay. Fire Department is going, we think it’s okay. And so we did it.
Miller: It seems like what you’re saying is the argument that won the day was a message of a return to normalcy. Why was that important to you?
Trett: It’s vital for us. As we’ve talked about, we’re a tourist economy up there. We felt this year, if we didn’t have people coming back, they would not come back ever. It would be very difficult for them to come back. We feel it’s necessary to show that we do have businesses up there, that we are still there and we are going to come back. That was just one of the things that we felt we really needed to do, and it went very well.
Miller: What was the crowd like and how did it compare to previous years?
Trett: We think it was pretty good. The problem is that we don’t have the trees. We had a lot more places to view it through some trees and things like that. It’s difficult because people are spread all over town. You have literally hundreds of boats on the lake that come up water and then pull out afterwards. So it’s very, very difficult. But we know there were large crowds from events over the weekend and I thought it was very, very successful and appreciated everybody coming and enjoying it. We heard that from a lot of people it was the best ever in Detroit, and I even had a couple of people say it was the best fireworks display they’d ever seen. So, thanks to the pyrotechnic company who did a little extra and Davidson’s Masonry and Sigmund Excavation & Construction, which paid for it. It was just a fantastic night.
Miller: Late last month, the Detroit Lake Marina announced that all boats have to be removed by July 11th because of historically low water levels. How much of a hit is that going to be to the area’s economy?
Trett: It’s going to hurt. The two marinas are there bring people into town. The boats will come in off the lake for gas if they’re there for the day, but then they’ll wander up into the community and support some of the businesses. So, that’s going to hurt. The day ramp is still available, but there will not be places for people to dock their boats for a couple hours while they come into town to have lunch or, or maybe a dinner. So that, is going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt badly. The other marina, we just found out they’re probably going to have to be done, maybe the week after. They’re hoping for the end of July... but not, that’s that. So we’re going to be hurting there.
Miller: Can you remind us, you mentioned people now not being able to just tie their boats up and go up to town to get lunch or dinner. How many local businesses are actually up and running right now?
Trett: Our one grocery store is back. We have a restaurant that reopened. Now [we] have two or three just there for the weekend. A couple of food carts that are there for the summer. So there were places to come in and eat, and we’ve been very impressed with how busy they have been, especially on weekends. People have come up and some of them said we have come up to support those businesses in those communities. We purposely came up for lunch today. We’ve been so appreciative for people realizing what our situation is in coming up to support.
Miller: What are your expectations for tourism and visitors for the rest of the summer?
Trett: It’s going to be interesting with the marinas gone. Some of these people are, like I said, coming up just to support us. Some of them are on their way to Bend or coming back from Bend and decide, hey, we’ll stop here and support those businesses. They tell us they’re doing it. But it’s going to be a hit. We’re watching it very, very closely to see what happens after the 11th and then after the second marina closes a couple weeks later.
Miller: More broadly, what are the biggest issues when it comes to rebuilding that you’re focused on right now as the Mayor of Detroit?
Trett: It’s bringing businesses back. Our water system was, as we talked about earlier, down for 7.5 months. What we have there now is a temporary treatment facility that doesn’t produce a bit of a full one would. So we’re focused on rebuilding that, getting it back to full capacity. Like I said, businesses are rebuilding. The county is waiving permit fees for full time residents to rebuild. Our concern right now is we have people saying I want to rebuild, but it’s going to have to be next year because of timber prices. We just can’t afford the increase in what it’s going to cost for material. So we’re watching that like a hawk. I’m hoping to begin conversations very soon with Representative Schrader about [if] there [is] something we can do about lake levels in the future? This is becoming an ongoing, almost yearly, concern now. So, is there something that we can do to find some solution to that situation? It’s going to be difficult. I understand the Corps, of course… the situation they’re in, in terms of all the demands on that…. but we need to try and find a way to better keep that lake full.
Miller: Just in case people missed one of the conversations that we had earlier, about what you’re talking about there, we talked with Zach Urness from the Statesmen Journal a few months ago. The Army Corps of Engineers announced that they were going to put five fewer feet of water behind the dam. That was because of seismic concerns... a different reading when they crunched the numbers of seismic danger, in the case of the big Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. That’s one reason, it’s not the biggest one, but it’s one of the reasons for lower water levels this year. The bigger reasons are drought and lower snowmelt. The last time we talked, back in February, it seemed that you were hoping for more support from state and federal officials. You were being careful in what you were saying, but that was the gist of it. What have you seen since then? Has the situation improved in terms of support from state and federal governments?
Trett: [The] state government, the Legislature, this year did a lot in terms of getting to not only Detroit but the canyon, and really all the fire affected areas of the state, so they’ve they’ve done some. Feds are still... when you deal with FEMA... when they started, they said we’re here, but we’re slow. Yes, they are. But they’re trying. We have our lawyers working with the city of Detroit from FEMA. He has proven to be a great advocate for us. So those things are coming. Projects that we need funding for are coming along, but it’s a long process for them. So we’re seeing that. We’re also very, extremely happy of the efforts of our county. The county commissioners have been super supportive in helping us get things done that we could not afford to do. The county staff, Jan Fritz, Marion County Executive, is known as a person to do things, but she needs to know how to pay for it first. Now, she’s just going, let’s do it. We’ll pay for it. We’ll figure out how to pay for it. They’ve been very, very supportive and I can’t complain too much about the state and the federal. We just have to wait and see how long it takes.
Miller: Jim Trett, thanks very much for joining us.
Trett: Thank you again for having us. Come up and see us.
Miller: I look forward to it. That’s Jim Trett, the Mayor of Detroit, giving us an update on what’s happening there, following the Labor Day fires that burned so much of Oregon, especially in the Santiam Canyon.
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