Volume XII | Issue 1 | Spring 2012
The annual Hop Fest attracts as many people from Monmouth as it does from Independence, which hosts the celebration. Photo: Polk County Itemizer-Observer

Two cities, one community

Independence and Monmouth find more reasons to cross the street and work together

Independence and Monmouth are sister cities in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Despite their proximity, they are very different towns. Independence grew up as an agricultural and commercial hub, and today it has a large Hispanic population. Missionaries from Illinois founded Monmouth as a college and separatist community; today the town has a large educator and student population.

more reasons to cross the street, meet neighbors

Those differences are still present, but now some residents are finding more reasons to cross the street, meet neighbors and work together. Ford Institute Leadership Program graduates credit the program with bringing them together.

“The Leadership Program gave everyone the permission to say ‘collaboration is okay and in fact it’s better,’” says Independence resident and city councilwoman Marilyn Morton.

Supporting the perception of graduates are the conclusions of an evaluation of the program done by Oregon State University Extension Family and Community Health. Researchers found that program participants across Oregon and Northern California gained a greater awareness of others in neighboring communities.Projects allowed individuals to “strengthen their ties to other cohort members by interacting multiple times and developing trust and solidarity through the process.” 

Despite sharing a school district, fire department and chamber of commerce, collaboration between Independence and Monmouth did not come naturally because of the two cities’ differing roots.

“Monmouth had its celebrations and Independence had its celebrations. Many of the town’s people were pretty well separated,” Morton says. “We’re just two miles apart. But there is a diversity of philosophy.”

Community events in Monmouth, home to Western Oregon University, center largely around university functions. In contrast, neighboring Independence, once touted as the “Hop Capital of the World,” has a lot of agriculture-related activities. 

Morton was a member of the area’s first Leadership Program cohort in 2005-06, which brought Independence and Monmouth leaders together. Monmouth resident Cec Koontz says those old divisions were an issue the first cohort wanted to address.

Bridging differences

The group is slowly erasing old lines while honoring each community’s pride in their roots. Morton says there is a long history of competition and difference between the two cities, yet there are elements ripe for collaboration. The cohort aimed to make those connections.

Koontz says the name for their cohort, “Two Cities, One CommUnity,” highlights “unity.” Members of the community would often direct inquiries to “someone from 2C1C.”

Koontz, a Monmouth city councilor, says now it’s not unusual for people to see her out at lunch with the economic developer of Independence or other leaders from both towns.

“Eight or 10 years ago it would not have been a common sight at all. Now we talk about how interesting it was that we’ve multiplied our connections through that class,” she says. “We definitely rely on that, on each other.”

‘Cross-pollination’

Morton calls this community-bridging “cross-pollination” and says the increased collaboration has branched out among the community’s subsequent Leadership Program cohorts and beyond.

Her biggest barometer for the collaboration is the annual “Ghost Walk” held in Independence. At the end of summer, residents and tourists gather downtown for a free walk through what is purported to be a haunted area of town.  

Morton says she’s always recruiting guides to take history buffs and thrill seekers around town. Prior to the Leadership Program, about 90 percent of the guides came from Independence. Last year, guides were drawn evenly from Monmouth and Independence. Attendance has tripled since 2002.

“The collaboration opened the gate so wide. The folks from Monmouth are just as eager to be engaged as the people in Independence,” she says. 

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