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Community Builder: Learning about community

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Eagle Point Mayor Bob Russell, former owner of Butte Creek Mill.

Q: What brought you to Southern Oregon?

Bob: I came to Southern Oregon from Lake Oswego Dec. 17, 2004, because I had heard there was an old flour mill in Eagle Point, and that Mr. Crandall, the owner, had a bunch of antiques for sale. I called Mr. Crandall, and he said, “Well, you’re going to have to come down here pretty quick if you want to see the place. I’ve already sent my antiques off to an auction company, and I put the mill on the market a week ago.”

So, two days later we drove down. It was a foggy December day and we got lost finding Eagle Point. I knew the minute I walked in the front door that I wanted to buy the place but, Debbie, my wife, was not all that enthusiastic. Two days later we put an offer on Butte Creek Mill, and the rest is history. We took over June 2, 2005. We knew nobody down here, nobody.

Q: What were you looking for?

Bob: My entire life I’ve been an antique nut. It started when I was 9 years old. I worked for Canon USA as a district manager and I traveled all the time with them. My dream was always to own and maybe even live in a historic building. Our kids were all grown, so the stars were just lined up. Any kind of move is disruptive, you might as well make a big move. I made a promise to Debbie that if she didn’t like it anytime in the first two years, I’d gladly move back up to Portland. It didn’t take long to bond with the folks in Eagle Point and be part of resurrecting the historic mill.

Q: Tell us about the night that Butte Creek Mill burned.

Bob: A prelude to that, my dear wife passed away of lung cancer in October 2015. Our kids came down during her illness, and when she passed away they said, “We’ll stay till Christmastime. It’s always the busiest time at the mill.” We were just kind of limping along, going through the motions, getting the boxes out and all that. There’s no time for a day off during that time because you make 40 percent of your sales in the month of December. Christmas day was going to be the first day off for all of us in months.

At 4:11 a.m., I’m sound asleep, just dreaming about sleeping in late, and my cellphone rings. It was SOS Alarm saying, “Your alarm has gone off.” I just live across the street from the mill. I walked down my open staircase, and on my wall was the reflection of yellow flames. It was so dramatic and traumatic, it was like a surreal dream. I screamed at the top of my lungs to my son. I ran outside wearing my slippers and a bathrobe. It was a very cold day. The firemen got here in 2 minutes and 40 seconds. They’re two and a half blocks away. I was trying to yell at them to try to save the far end of the mill, but by that time it was too late.

Q: You and other people in the community are committed to rebuilding Butte Creek Mill. Why is it important to you and why do you think it’s important for the community?

Bob: A lot of people considered the mill the heart of Eagle Point. It was the last operating water-powered flour mill west of the Mississippi. We had just completed the last of some major projects to get it up to perfection. It was so heart-warming to see school buses of kids come along who finally understood where flour comes from, what you do with flour, and what the pioneers had to go through. The mill was an important source of tourism for Eagle Point. We figured about 40,000 people a year came by. It was just fun being part of that.

After losing Debbie in October, the wind was kind-of out of my sails. I will always be part of the mill, but the reality was that it was hugely under-insured. lf we were going to rebuild it, we had to become a 501c3 (the nonprofit Butte Creek Mill Foundation) and start a fundraising campaign. We had a lot of really good support from the community. We had an anonymous donation for $100,000 right away. We can replicate the hand-hewn timbers. The mill stones are in good condition. The lower level is solid. Butte Creek Mill can be rebuilt, and we will be making flour by next year at this time.

Q: What have you learned about community in this process?

Bob: It’s phenomenal what I’ve learned about what community means. The outreach that this community has expressed, not only to me and to my family, but even to the city of Eagle Point, has just been phenomenal. For instance, when we started removing nasty, yucky, old, burned-up stuff, we put a request out through Facebook. We got 110 people here on New Year’s Day to help. We had pies and cakes and cookies. A 10-year-old girl donated $100 that she had saved for an iPad. You soon learn that when the going gets tough here in Eagle Point, there are a lot of people who rise to the occasion and extend a helping hand. I’ve seen it time and time again. That attitude is just kind of the heart and soul of Eagle Point.

Q: Now you’re the mayor of Eagle Point.

Bob: Yes. I’m finishing my fourth two-year term, and shortly I’m officially termed out. I got involved in city issues when the council decided we shouldn’t have hanging flower baskets. I came from Lake Oswego, where we had these beautiful hanging baskets around town. My boss in sales at Canon always used to tell me that salesmanship starts when your customer says no. When somebody says, “No, you can’t do that,” that’s just the start of the conversation. I learned early on, don’t take “no” for an answer.

Tim Elbert of Four Seasons Nursery promised, “If you could commit to 40 baskets, I will hang, water and fertilize them daily. I’ll put them up May 1 and take them down in October.” So we went out and knocked door-to-door. We raised enough money to start hanging flower baskets in downtown. People love them. After that I ran for mayor. Now Medford, Ashland, Central Point, Phoenix and Talent all have hanging baskets.

Q: What are some of the positives of Eagle Point?

Bob: One of the things you learn when you get involved in public office is that things move slow. I’m a person who just gets in there and gets it done. It just doesn’t work that way in city government, county government or state government.

We’ve got a city staff that’s second to none. If someone asked me what my biggest accomplishment was, one of them would be hiring Henry Lawrence, our city manager. He is a top-notch guy. He took a pay cut to come here. We just love this guy and the team he’s put together. Having that team together, just getting the city cleaned up and on track has been wonderful.

If you want to have a good city council, you have to go out and work for it. You don’t just wait for someone to come along and sign up. I spend a lot of time talking to people about getting involved. When those people get involved, then you have a city council that is composed of smart people who’ve done their homework, who want to move things forward and aren’t afraid make tough decisions. We agree to disagree on occasion, but we all have the best interests of the citizens of Eagle Point in mind, and it’s a pleasure.

Another positive is how important our youth are. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of Boy Scout troops that are producing more Eagle Scouts than just about any other troop in this valley. We have a very big FFA presence. I didn’t know FFA at all before I moved down here, but it’s a fantastic organization that grows leaders. They’re not just growing future farmers.

Q: What will Eagle Point be like in 20 years?

Bob: In 20 years, Eagle Point will be thriving. We have some projects on the drawing board right now that are going to move this community forward in a way that we have not seen. We have developers who are ready to spend some real money in downtown Eagle Point. Where a lot of downtowns have kind of withered, we have a commitment to develop a full acre in our downtown with commercial buildings. We have a gentleman who is negotiating right now on property to build a microbrewery restaurant.

I see Eagle Point as our own little secret that’s not going to be so secret in 20 years. We’ll have double the population. We have about 9,000-plus now, and we’ll have 18,000 in 20 years. The city owns the land along Little Butte Creek from the mill up to the fish ladder. We will see a pathway up there with interpretive signs talking about Little Butte Creek as the most important tributary to the Rogue River for wild chinook salmon breeding. There’s just no end in sight.

I think we’re going to continue to be a place that people want to live. Our new tagline is “Welcome to the neighborhood.” That’s the feeling we have in our community, and we want people to feel welcome. It is a neighborhood. You come to the Fourth of July here and it’s filled with smiles, people enjoying themselves. They’re proud of this little town.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Bob: Besides having three wonderful children and a couple of grandkids, I’m proud that I’ve been able to influence this community in a positive way. You can have a real impact in a smaller community. Recruiting and working with local citizens who have great ideas, getting those people to serve, that’s probably my greatest accomplishment. This esprit de corps is going to carry on past me.

It’s just the feeling of community that I’m proud that we have. I’m not so sure that every community is lucky enough to have that. The legacy is the Butte Creek Mill and the city it lives in. This town has a heart.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Bob Russell sits at the burned entrance of Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point.