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Fregonese was a visionary leader

I was elected Mayor of Ashland in 1988 and took office the following January. At just 36 I joined the ranks of a mostly young 30-something council, planning commission, and budget committee. We were liberals, business owners, lawyers, and college professors; excited to lead our community. Rosaline Carter once said: “It’s hard to lead people where they do not want to go,” and back then there were plenty of disagreements. Packed council meetings lasted into the wee hours, but all in all, Ashland was an easy city to lead because Ashland knew where it wanted to go. Citizens wanted recycling programs, bike paths, parks, better schools, a thriving business community, historic preservation and public art.

And in 1989 hundreds volunteered for boards and commissions to make all of that a reality in a city led by new faces. It was an amazing confluence of enthusiastic free thinkers who were willing to take risks. None of us were punters.

In those halcyon days, John Fregonese, Ashland’s planning director, served as the visionary leader of a scalable city with a tight, urban form — one accessible on foot and bike. Building upon Ashland’s architecture, he articulated a path and we enthusiastically followed. He was brilliant, good-natured, thoughtful, hilarious, and kind.

As an early architect of Ashland’s open space program, John developed the maps, encouraged preservation of walking paths between neighborhoods, and proposed a park within a quarter mile of every home. He urged citizens to donate undeveloped land for public parks and open space and saw the importance of the city’s backdrop remaining wild. He said: “How different the Plaza if we looked up and only saw houses.” To John, preservation wasn’t just about buildings, it was about transportation, greenspace, community, the city’s backdrop, and how each is tethered to the other.

One of his greatest signature pieces was the downtown plan which John created alongside community participants. John noted that the distance between the Plaza and the Carnegie was the same as the distance from one end of the Rogue Valley Mall to the other. He knew if people willingly walked one, they would walk the other if amenities were added, and so they were: benches, drinking fountains, flower beds, and trees.

And John loved public art. When Lincoln’s headless body was unearthed in a city yard, John sent away to Italy for the exact marble used for the body and had a local craftsman carve a new head. He also marveled at the grace and beauty of the Butler-Perozzi fountain in Lithia Park and spearheaded its restoration long ago. Now it is in need of additional work, and John’s family is asking, in lieu of flowers and gifts, to please visit the Fregonese Associates website at www.frego.com where you may contribute to the Butler-Perozzi Fountain Restoration Project. What a lovely way to remember such an important city figure.

Memorial services will be held on at 4 p.m. Aug.16 at the Portland Yacht Club. Hope to see you there.

Cathy Shaw is a former mayor of Ashland.