Marion County: A year of “fire, ice and isolation”

Colm Willis, Marion County commissioner, sits in on a homeless alliance executive meeting video conference on May 5, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Marion County commissioner Colm Willis said if someone had told him the county would be challenged by Covid, wildfires and a recent ice storm, he would have “told you that our county would be in shambles.

“But it’s not, we’re stronger and braver and more prepared than we’ve ever been,” Willis said Wednesday during the annual State of the County address.  

His speech, delivered remotely, as well as the speeches of his fellow commissioners, Danielle Bethell and Kevin Cameron, touched on the hardships the community has faced and the ways in it has risen to the occasion.

Willis pointed to the county’s early embrace of hyper-local data on Covid transmissions.

Beginning April 23 last year, the county released data on Covid cases by ZIP code. The data indicated many cases could be traced to the northern part of the county at the start of the outbreak. He said the county was the first in the state to publish Covid data by ZIP code and noted that the positivity rate is the lowest it has been since the start of the pandemic.

The county spent $850,000 of its economic development budget on emergency grants for small businesses in the spring, Willis noted. County spokeswoman Jolene Kelley said some of that was later federally reimbursed.

“More people today are moving to Marion County than ever before. Our economy is recovering and is poised for incredible growth in 2021. It seems like new businesses are opening just about every day,” Willis said.

He also said the county dedicated $500,000 to Gates and Detroit to help those communities rebuild from last year’s devastating wildfires.

Kelley said the county is paying for retired city managers to work with Gates and Detroit and for contracted financial analysts to produce revenue projections to aid in rebuilding efforts.  

Bethell, who was elected to the board in November, said the impact of Covid on Marion County businesses has been “horrid.”  She described business owners who were suicidal. 

“If you can think of it, it’s been impacted. Not one single area of small business in Marion County has escaped the wrath of government mandate and Covid-19. No one saw this train coming and nobody knew how long it was going to last and we’re still unsure,” she said.

She said Marion County and its health partners have vaccinated 58% of those 65 and older in the last two months, a total of 32,000 people.

“That’s phenomenal,” Bethell said.

When the county opened a shelter for wildfire evacuees at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in September, Bethell said there was no playbook or emergency manual on how to respond to the influx of people and farm animals seeking refuge there.

But she said county workers and herself pitched in and made it work.

Bethell also highlighted a recent safety corridor established along McKay, Yergen and Ehlen roads near Newberg which have been the scene of fatal traffic accidents.

She said the safety corridor, the first in the state, creates signage, rumble strips and flashing lights to make that stretch of road safer.

Cameron coined his address as the year of “fire, ice and isolation.”

He said it’s been a challenge to keep a good attitude in the face of the devastation this year but seeing county staff step forward brought him optimism.

Cameron had to flee from his home in Detroit as the Beachie Creek Fire burned the town.

“How many punches does a region or an area or a community take before it goes down for the count?” he said.

Cameron encouraged those listening to the address to remember those who had lost everything in the wildfire.

But, he said, “Remember fire and ice and isolation are in the rear-view mirror. The windshield is bigger for a reason.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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