A Talent For Vision

Imagine a storage facility on Main Street in the middle of downtown Talent instead of a new City Hall, a popular skate park and a replica of the town's historic railroad depot, which stand there today.

A storage facility it might still be without the vision of Marla Cates, who got the Talent Urban Renewal Agency to buy the land for future city use in 1995 after learning it might be sold.

Cates had similar foresight to create a new entrance into downtown, build the depot and carry out other projects.

"She looked at those properties and said the city should own those," said former Mayor Marian Telerski.

"I believe her vision is larger than, 'Oh, we need a grocery store here.' It's a vision of what a town can be," said Telerski, who served on the city's urban renewal board. "She's always had an eye to preserving what is and to make it better."

Cates worked with city government bodies and citizens' groups to accomplish what she envisioned, including preservation of the 1899 Community Center, construction of the new depot, extension of Main Street to make a better connection with Valley View Road, retention of the Camelot Theatre, a façade-improvement program and other projects.

Cates said she couldn't have done it alone.

"All the projects that I was involved in were successful because of the other people on the committees and the commissions, City Council, city staff and the urban renewal board," said Cates. "All the projects required somebody to say 'yes' to the initial idea and then support it."

Cates moved to Talent in 1979 and became involved in volunteer efforts around 1990, first with the Talent Enhancement Month Committee.

"The city was in the process of either becoming better or becoming worse," said Cates. "I really thought we should take advantage of what we already had."

The downtown core had been largely untouched since the 1940s, says Cates.

"(It was) small-town Midwest in terms of space and how it was laid out," said Cates. "It's a walking community. At the time we were fortunate. Progress had not made any negative impact on it."

With others, Cates established the Talent Historical Society. She then secured a grant for historian George Kramer to develop a context statement on how the city had developed, tracing its agricultural roots and key development moments.

That statement guided Cates and others working to retain Talent's historical feel. She helped create an Architectural Review Committee under city government to maintain downtown's look.

In 2002, Cates was encouraged to apply for the urban renewal agency's executive director position. She was hired just as the agency began a major rebuild of Main Street.

Two "surprise" projects weren't in the plans when Cates became the agency administrator: the $2.8 million City Hall, finished in 2007, and the West Valley View extension, where a first phase was built in 2012.

Cates brought the extension idea to the board as a way to eliminate awkward traffic access to downtown after considering all the open land available for the project.

"I think she has been very smart "… in getting a good deal of public input," said Telerski.

The urban renewal agency will close shop in December 2016, but that won't mean an end to Cates' ideas.

She sees future possibilities, including train service to the depot that could take people elsewhere in the valley, and a low-cost housing partnership.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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