In what amounted to an informal conversation about Longview’s past and future, the Oregon Public Broadcasting radio program “Think Out Loud” taped its Thursday show at a downtown cafe Wednesday evening.
Longview’s community leaders gathered at the Casava coffee shop and restaurant to sip wine and beer and discuss the community’s challenges, quirks and future with host Dave Miller, who has previously hosted and produced Public Broadcasting programs in Massachusetts and New York.
Miller said it was the show’s 17th installment of its “Our Town” series, which profiles communities across the U.S.
The Longview program, which airs at noon and 8 p.m. today on OPB, FM 91.5, spanned a broad array of topics — including the renovation of the Columbia Theatre, Longview’s trademark squirrel bridges and the community’s quality of life.
“Things are easy here,” Longview native Teresa Purcell, a public affairs consultant, told Miller. “It’s comfortable. People are friendly.”
Miller also pressed his guests about the prospect of closing schools as student enrollment shrinks, the proposed coal terminal on the Columbia River and the community’s economic future.
Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber, a Longview native, said that when he was young there were plenty of blue-collar jobs at the local mills, and just about anyone could count on finding good work after high school. That’s not the case anymore, he said.
“The economy has devastated the mills,” Weber told Miller. “We’ve got this struggle. ... How do we find jobs for everybody?”
When Miller turned the conversation to the proposed coal export terminal, Weber acknowledged there is a divide between those who worry about health risks and climate change and young, blue-collar workers who say, “That’s very nice, but I’m trying to raise my family” at a time when local unemployment hovers around 10 percent.
When Miller suggested that there was a class conflict between those workers and the environment, Weber said that almost everyone in the community insists that whatever industry that comes here “be done cleanly and safely.”
But Longview native Teresa Purcell said the prospect of hosting the West Coast’s largest coal export facility has put Longview’s global reputation at stake. Once the terminal begins shipping coal, it will “define Longview to the world,” she told Miller.
Miller invited audience members to speak up in support of the coal project, but no one obliged.
Weber and other officials agreed Longview’s issues aren’t confined to coal or econmic problems, citing the city’s aging population, a scarcity of young people returning after college to raise their families, and the ever-present need to revitalize the city’s downtown so that those young people will want to live here.
Noticeably absent from the evening’s conversation was discussion of Longview’s drug and crime problems.
Longview schools Superintendent Suzanne Cusick noted that a high percentage of Longview District students qualify for free or reduced lunches. One of the consequences of that is that students will need a good local college because they can’t afford to commute, she said.
Lower Columbia College President Christopher Bailey said his school’s recent partnership with Eastern Washington University will help fill that need.
Bailey noted that while Longview could once be considered “a mill town,” that’s slowly changing.
The economy, he told Miller, is “diversifying.”