Jim's Oral Interview
La Center Historical Museum
Clark County Stories
Interviewer: Suzi Terrell
Narrator Name: JIM IRISH
Interview date and time: 8/04/18 10:00am
Interview Address: 628 E 18th St., La Center, WA
Transcriber: Suzi Terrell, April 2021
Hello, I am Suzi Terrell with the La Center Historical Museum and I am here chatting with Mr. Jim Irish, a former mayor of La Center. So, I'd like to have you start off Jim by telling us a little bit about your background and how you ended up coming to our little town.
Jim: And you use term right ‘little’ town correctly! Anyway, I am former Mayor Jim Irish I lived in Eastern Washington was involved is the politics there in the town that we were in working at the Hanford Site. Two our children had grown up and come into the Vancouver area - one for school and one for work and gotten married was raising a family.
So, working for Bonneville Power Administration, I was getting along in years to where I'd be ready for retirement and so one of the things that you start planning is the top five, which is the highest five years up employment and then they take the average of that to be your retirement - as far as retirement benefits are concerned. Well in Eastern Washington where I was the Water Quality Manager for the Federal Hydro System, I was at the top of my pay grade and I would stay there. Period -
So, when different positions opened up within my area of expertise in the Portland area which is where Bonneville's headquarters was along with the Core of Engineers and the other federal agencies like Fish Wildlife that we collaborated with, I put in a transfer to come to the Portland/Vancouver area. Our son and daughter-in-law and family had just moved out here to La Center, so we started looking around out here because it was a nice quiet little town and had a total of 950 people when we moved over here.
At that time all of southwestern Washington it seemed was in a growth spurt. Battle Ground, Ridgefield, Yacolt, La Center and Woodland were all growing in double digits at 10 - 12% which is fine for growth, but it has problems if you haven’t planned for it.
So, we made the move here to La Center … we got our house in 2000 Y2K when everything was supposed to come crashing down. We had signed the paperwork to have our house built on a lot that we had bought where we live now and started construction in June of 2000.
Our son, daughter-in-law, grandson and granddaughter had moved here a little bit outside of town to a house that they had built, and then our daughter who had gotten married, moved into their house here in La Center. I couldn't quite get our kids from Eastern Washington to move over here but we have 4 kids and ten grandchildren, so it would be nice if we had them all together, but the trips back to Eastern Washington is fun and games too.
But in doing so, seeing the growth and driving from La Center to Portland to go to work every day, I could see the traffic problem was mounting. The 205 bridge was being constructed and opened up, but it didn't alleviate the problem on I-5 which is the road that I had to travel. It seems like more people then came on to it from 205 over to I-5 which made it much more fun to where I had to go to work an extra hour early in order to beat the traffic.
My grandfather had always told me that if you don’t like what was going on, then offer a solution - don't just complain about it. He said complain about it with the proposal for solving the problem, and maybe if your proposal was good enough or you had the ability to listen to others as they expressed their problems, then maybe with what you're proposing you can fit it into something that was super good for more than just you - but for everybody concerned.
So, we had a problem with growth and the effective growth on the city of La Center. First the infrastructure within the city of La Center was outdated, and we began running into problems like an old style sewer …and where I say “we” it's not me taking it personally this is “we” meaning the city of La Center. I have a habit of talking like this city is personal at mine! So, I say ‘we’ ‘me’ ‘mine’! But it had gotten so limited and not being able to handle the potential growth that there was a growth moratorium put in two different times, where it stopped all growth while we caught up or cleaned up or made immediate changes to handle the situation where we were either not meeting the criteria for the water being dumped into the east fork of the Lewis River, or we were not being able to have a flow period – the filters were clogging up the system.
So, some of the issues that were brought forward were:
“Well we'll just have to slow things down until we get caught up” and
“If you snooze you lose”.
So it was brought forward, that the city of La Center had since back in the mid 80’s under Mayor Carson, allowed the cardrooms to come into the city as an economic measure which worked out very well because the city was really hurting. So there was growth from him on up, with the amount of percentage of taxes that we were allowed to receive from the card rooms, which was in according to state, you could go up to 22% of the gross, not net, but the gross tax, so if they made $5,000,000 you can get 22% of that $5,000,000 in tax.
So, the City of La Center worked with the card rooms and they went for 15% to help the City out. And so that had eliminated the immediate problem. Then lowered down to 12 1/2% and then down to 10% and then back up when we got behind the ball again and then back down and back up. And finally, under Mayor Cerveny it was lowered to 10% and that's where it was for quite a few years until she decided not to run. After seven years she had enough of it and decided not to run as Mayor.
Well, there were some issues that had been with the growth in the Planning Commission etc that I didn't agree with, as I heads hard and did research etc came forward with some corrective ideas and I decided, well like my grandfather said, I should look at doing something about it. So, I put my hat in the ring to run for Mayor. Councilmember Richard Curtis had put his hat in the ring too. So, we had an interesting election campaign because I had mentored Councilman Curtis when he wanted to run for Council member, because he didn't know how to do it. I had been one in Eastern Washington for the town of West Richmond, so I was trying to tell him some good ways to do it. Well, when it came time to run, he was following my steps and I was doing my own.
But when the results came out it was interesting because according to election results, I had won by 17 votes. Well since that was less than 100, we had 1,150 registered voters at that time, and I think I walked and knocked on every single door at least twice maybe three times to get information out and talk to the people, we had to have and automatic recall. And they found one chad (that was back in the days we have to punch through the card) where one was only part way punched through so they gave that vote to councilmember Curtis and so I won by 16 votes. But in doing so we had good staff, some of which had reached the retirement age and gone on, but we had a well-balanced and progressive budget that was looking forward because of the growth from the cardrooms.
So, it was from that we were able to take a look at the sewer system. The Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis, had good experience with the City of Troutdale with their membrane type sewer, and with that he knew one of the operators and senior supervisors, Sue Lawrence, who was a level four, of which there is only five with in the state of Washington and 10 in the northwest. So, working with her and getting her input etc. we were able to come up with a design for a using the same footprint, not having to grow any, just using the same footprint of the sewer that we had and still have right now, and put in the membrane technology. It’s kind of like an upright dresser drawer where you know you fill the bottom drawer with clothes and then you go to the next space one up and you go to the next one up, until you fill all five drawers.
Well, we have that type setup … that’s just simplified example, but we have that type setup with the membrane technology that at the time when we were doing our planning under the comprehensive growth in the state of Washington Clark County, we had our planning that we were looking at 20 years for the level of population for the La Center to be 10,000. And with that we also at that time knew about in 2005 we knew about the Cowlitz tribe wanting to take the filing for the taking the 152 acres on the West side of I-5 La Center junction and turning that into a reservation. But we thought if get our sewer up the junction, and we get the land annexed in - that we'd be set. Well, we had filed on that land for annexation including 152 acres because it was still under the process of being 14:53 applied for a reservation, but it was challenged. Our taking the property into the urban growth boundary of the city of La Center was challenged by Futurewise which was an environmental group, that said that we were taking too much agricultural land turning it into city use and that would eliminate needed agricultural land. Wells we've obviously lost. Out of the 900 acres we lost approximately just under 700 acres of it was taken out. So there was a big chunk. But we still had we did file for later after we got a new sewer, we did file for carrying the land from Timmen’s Road up to the I-5 junction so that we had La Center junction into urban growth planning out of the city La Center. And we finally did win, and we got it the land up there. At that time city was being tied up with the task forced for Clark County and cities on this issue of the tribe taking 152 acres into reservation. And so we had a lot of different meetings with Joe Zarelli from the State, Representative, Clark County, and the city of Woodland, Ridgefield, Battle Ground and Yacolt to discuss the pluses and minuses.
But we in doing so, there's a lot of negative and we were negative at first too because we were going by the information we had heard. and having worked for the federal government I worked with the tribes in Nationwide as far as aquatic species in water quality control from the dams and there's Chinook runs the salmon runs up and down the River and spilling of water and how it was detrimental and but yet it's needed in temperature control etc. as far as the young salmon not coming down the River. So, I came to realize and working with the other members of different tribes, that what was being presented was not true and that I might want to look at the facts which I did. And doing so I realized that in would be in the City of La Center’s best interest if we were forming working relationship with the tribe. And when we made that decision, I met with the tribe along with the Public Works Director Jeffrey Sarvis, and one of the council members of the city and we met in to discuss how we could get away from this antagonistic type approach to where we get to a working relationship with them with the tribe. And it was really quite simple because they wanted that relationship too, but they were bucking us and some of their own tribal people who were going against joining up with us in a business proposition type deal because the information that they were being fed about what the city wanted the same as we were bucking up against the tribe the information that we were being fed by what the tribe was demanding. And it turned out that 90% of that on both cases was not factually was hearsay. And so we met at the Red Lion Inn in Longview, Chairman John Barnett, and David Barnett his son, who was also a developer and he's the one who had bought the land down here 152 acres and then Pilot Port and to be a reservation. But we met and talked and I told Chairman John Barnett, who is a very stoic, very stern but very logical and like my grandfather person - who whether he likes you or not if you were in need, he’d give me the shirt off his back. But not just as a gift because you needed it, because if you didn't need it, he’d ask for his shirt back.
But I realized that we weren't getting anywhere so I told him while we were sitting there after lunch and over coffee … I made a decision and said, I want to draw a line in the sand and if you take my hand, I said in joining a partnership, I will step over that line and we can march forward for that as the City and Tribe and join business partnerships as far as looking out for each other.
And he kind of say “Whoa”. Then I say “I'm sorry I'm sorry I don't want to do that. I can't do that”. Which really raised his eyebrows. And I said “because water and wind in time will erode that line to where it doesn’t mean anything anymore. So, I said today I will draw a line in fresh concrete, and I want to step across that line the same way as I would have if the line was drawn with sand, but this way that line if you accept my hand, will be casted in concrete so it won't be affected by time or elements. He looked at me and just stuck out his hand. And so I took his hand and I ceremoniously stepped across the line, so to speak, and from that point we started working on how we could work together whether it be police forces hoping to secure safety for the tribe, or other ways that we can work together. I still had a negative council, a controlling council, but that was gradually won over to where they saw that the issues that we were talking about had a real benefit. So they started considering all of the 13-14 major concerns that were brought forward on paper, that were concerns to the City, and we were working on how to address them.
We had some MO (memorandums of understanding) issues brought forward by them that at first the council laughed at saying yeah this doesn't ring true. Well it did ring true and it would be seen to be that way later on as minor changes were made to the agreement. And we got our agreement for the sewer, the City didn’t have the money at that time to get it up to the junction, but the tribe said that they would do that for some land uses being turned over to the tribe for roadways or certain other straightening out of the roads on the West side of the freeway that was within our urban growth boundary.
And so that led us up to the issues of today; the casino did you built, we did get our sewer put in, the tribe did put it in, we got some other joint ventures; the roundabouts were put in by the tribe in order to get the road on and off ramps etc so wouldn't hang up traffic etc, but the Washington Department transportation, the City of La Center and the tribe work together, and those were all done paid for it,
$38,000,000 for roundabouts paid for by the tribe, the sewer ‘line’ was paid for by the tribe to come down to this city and it was moving in positive stance forward.
A lot who were staunchly against it, people wise, have turned into “wow this is pretty neat looking” they’ve got this and they’ve got that, and everybody is worried about the restaurants. Well the casino put in five different restaurants; Michael Jordan's, Line & Lure, Roses and Tom’s Urban and the Longhouse. They were spaces that were leased out to the restaurants – they were not tribal just spaces leased out. The restaurant ran them in according to their standards etc, but they had to meet the quality standards of the tribe obviously. And in doing so then if they didn’t make it wasn’t the tribes fault nor was the tribe sponsoring them, so to speak in any way shape or form, over other places such as the restaurants that were here in the City of La Center. But we had certain things that we had agreed to that the tribe at the time, actually helped the city, such as we have the cardrooms and there were issues about the cardrooms are going be hurt and probably end up closing. And in the city of course 99% of our income comes from the cardroom tax. As a federal entity we can’t tax the tribe and they don't have to pay anything to us, so it left us back right with the cardrooms again. But when they made the agreement with the with us and when they filed for their license to operate their casino, their casino would have NO poker because they knew that the City of La Center cardrooms played poker, and poker only. So we couldn’t have slot machines and stuff like that, because we were only a Class 8 gambling.
So they said well we don't want to hurt La Center and besides that, we make more money off of the slot machines not the dice games etc, so we don't need those programs. So we can see the tribal casino does not have any poker games only the City of La Center. And the workers at the tribe know if they want to gamble, they cannot gamble in the casino as it’s against the law, so they come down here to the City of La Center to play their games and give the dealers down here a bad time etc.
So it's worked out because it's not all just me-me-me-me, it has worked out gradually for the benefit of folks. And the museum is going to also since the tribe has a certain amount of their money that has to go into Clark County museums, which would be Ridgefield and La Center because we butt up against them and so we are affected by their landship, and we will be getting some money from that will be getting some money from the impact funds that they call for La Center, Woodland and Richfield for the Tribe being in there. So it's not all negative impact, things are looking a little bit better than the dark future that everybody thought they would be.
Thank you for the short break I needed it. But I wanted to continue on … we've gone through the where I came here and bring how the city of La Center met the growth challenge that was coming about over 12 years that I was Mayor of the city of La Center but those are technical issues - it could be X or seen as yes or no, yep we needed it or no were still here.
But also within that, in the operation of the city, so to speak, are the people and the people concerns. In 2005 at my prodding, we went out and looked at the city of Linwood’s float that they were selling. And I thought well since we have this Miss Teen La Center that takes part with different parades etc where they ride with the Mustang Club, who were very nice to give them back seat to their cars to sit in as they were in the parades, I thought well we could do something to enhance that by having something that was specifically to the city of La Center. And Linda Tracy who was the coordinator and MC sorta of speak of the Miss Teen La Center and ladies and the fund raising and the scholarships that the winner gets etc we started talking about it and I went up and look at the float and it was good she went up and looked at it with us. We talked about the possibilities and that it was a good price so the city of La Center bought it and we trailered it down here. So in 2005 for Our Days celebration we had the La Center float and it has gone through changes just like the city, but it was something that the people loved. The court got to sit on the float wave and throw out candy. It was fun and the more we grew the more that the applicants for the Miss Teen La Center contest turned out. So we cut back the decorations of it a little bit in order to handle the Miss Teen LC and her four court members. So it still was really a fantastic thing that drew in lots of people from the country along with all different kinds of accolades from the different cities whose parades we went to.
It got to be quite well known for a small city float and most of the time I drove it. It was motorized. But along with that, again I touched on that Miss Teen La Center, well that was a community event. You had to be 12 and a half to 13 years old up to senior an 18 year old, to participate as a contestant for this. It turned out we got quite a few very interesting, very charming, very wonderful ladies young ladies. Their main purpose was to enjoy being Miss Teen La Center, but also the duties that they had to do as far as being a representative of the city of La Center. They did a good job of it over the years they had some really good really good fun.
But we also had as an outgrowing of that involvement, a young lady who was a senior at the high school come to the City Council and brought forward the fact that to show the support of ours soldiers that were in the service and in harms way, that we ought to put yellow ribbons on the bridge, to show our support for their efforts. And then when the war ended we would celebrate by taking the ribbons off the bridge.
Well her name was Lizzy Perrott and the City Council endorsed it. We thought it was a great idea and voted it in and would endorse it. So we had a great turn out and we covered the bridge with yellow bows, not covered it but space them out. As the years have gone by the cost of the bows have gone up so the number of bows has gone down, but we still remember our service men and women and their responsibilities for working for the United States and the city of La Center.
But then we also have the Our Days. It’s usually the third weekend in July but we switched it to August 9th in 2009 because that was when we turned 100 years old, and so we celebrated it with quite a gala celebration. It was quite fun.
But the Our Days is just that, it's a fantastic day-long celebration. We have a movie and band playing on Friday night and Saturday we had all the vendors all over in the Holly Park and had the Kids Zone, which had some fantastic bouncing toys and things that I was a little jealous that I was too old to go play on. We had face painting where they tried to get me to do a connected the dots with all my freckles, but she decided she didn't have enough ink to try and even begin to do that, but we have fun.
And then on Sunday we had barbershop quartet in the park in which Linda Tracy, who was also a member of a quartet, an all-female quartet of acapella singers that they get quite well. But she would get different groups in fact we had international champions here and they would come and perform in the park at the amphitheater that we got put it in.
The that was another community effort, is we had a bowl that was cut originally in layers for a stage down in the park where they could play or show movies in, but you were sitting on the grass. Then the Lions club came to me and said you know we have some land down underneath the bridge, how about if we swap the city for that land and the city puts in a gazebo at the park, so that we could have an actual stage that’s covered bands or quartets could play there even in bad weather. So, we knew that the land underneath the bridge wasn't quite worth as much as a gazebo, but it was a good community involvement and effort, so we did it.
And yes, that’s where we have our north boat ramp and mini park down there underneath the bridge for citizens to look at the kiosk from the Museum Association that they put down there and helped us build up, clean up and shape up this park, where we have all kinds of kayakers going on there by the dozens to enjoy the east fork of the Lewis River.
But all of this, and the summer concerts, the Christmas tree lighting, which has grown every year as the city has, cause when I started, I mentioned about the city being 950 people when we first learned about La Center. When we moved here, when I became Mayor, I had 1,150 population.
Right now we have over 3,050 or 3,250 I think it is, but when I left when my term was over we had 3,050. And that’s a pretty large growth and most of it is in the median age of 40-48 and they all extremely love the city, it’s involvement that they can have in the city and social at activities. But also in it’s love of our history and how there are the different groups like the Lions and the museum association etcetera how they involve the community and how well the community works. The revenues go up and down as far as the cardrooms are concerned, but they also were involved in the city activities. They couldn't give money directly because it's gambling tax money got from them, so they formed a corporation, not a corporation but a charitable group that they could donate the money too and then we could apply, different groups like Lions or the museum or the Miss Teen LC or a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, they could apply for a grant and they had an actual committee that reviews the grants and determined whether or not they can get their money. The cardrooms also were involved in the activities in the city and lot of cases help sponsor them.
So with this all I was very pleased when my term in office came to be, as I said before we had the casino at the junction, it wasn't having as drastic an effect on the city as it had been feared and what has been talked about. But the construction of building the roundabout, and the construction of building the sewer line down the road, had cut traffic back to where we were seeing some downfall and some setbacks.
But they’ve all as in most cases when the construction was over, the traffic increased, not just increased but greatly increased. Before you could sit and count the cars and have a couple cups coffee while you’re doing, but now you don’t have time to drink your coffee because it gets cold with all the cars coming down the road into La Center. But as in all cases when I left, we were at the edge of taking a big leap forward and being able to expand out the junction with the businesses and the planning committee was working on the zoning for the that area that were finally got in, so hopefully the new administration and the continued growth of the city La Center will see not a sunset but a sunrise, on a new economic and diversified city while still maintaining the beautiful involvement that the community has with its residents.
And I guess that about sums it up 12 years’ worth of, fun. We had good and bad and I'm not saying it was all fun, that was simple minded, but every time we went down, we had the citizen involvement and the citizens coming forward to rise us back up again, so the city never really lost its dream.
It's like I said, we have the slogan that was made to the City Council and adopted by the City Council, and that’s “Living the dream at exit 16” and that's what we're doing. We a dream of a population growth up to 10,000 and have the ability financially to support that and still maintain the community that brought so many here in the first place.
So with that I want to thank you for taking the time and hearing my rambling dialogue on 12 years of greatness in the city.
Suzi - Well I think we covered a lot of areas and touched on a lot of issues. So I think it was a great interview here Jim. Thank you very much for taking the time and I appreciate your service to this little Town. And I appreciate your optimism too for seeing things go forward and continuing the dream.
Jim – Thank you for taking the time to gather this up because it's needed, its needed for people to be able to draw back to their roots. And we've got people like Petite’s, Wooldridge’s, Barnhart’s and Bransford’s, that have been in this community forever and their roots and be able to have them look back and say, ya I remember this and then they can embellish it with their little bit of information so that in, lord willing when I’m 105, I can still remember what's going on, and that I can remember and relate back and enjoy the extra time that I have and enjoy what the city has so I thank you for your effort.
Suzi - It's my pleasure! I think history is important and because I love genealogy, I think telling the stories and hearing it in your own voice is important. My goal to get a lot of the different community members too give me their stories of La Center and document it. So I really appreciate your time thank you Jim!