Over the years, we've had ample opportunities to keep tabs on the remarkable resurgence of Lebanon. Once a struggling timber town like so many in the West, Lebanon has managed to transform itself, even as other towns have struggled with the difficult business of reinvention.
Lebanon has succeeded where others have stumbled in large part because of focus: In particular, it has been fortunate to have leaders who have stayed the course and concentrated on the long run.
Which brings to a key player in that transformation: Ken Toomb, who died last week at the age of 81, served Lebanon city government for three decades, including 10 years as the mayor (five two-year terms), 18 years on the City Council and two years on the Planning Commission. That's a lot of time spent at late-night meetings under fluorescent lighting when he could have been spending time with friends and family. (And considering how these are essentially volunteer positions, it's not as though Toomb was doing this work for fame or fortune.)
No, the volunteers who tackle this generally thankless work do so because they want to give something back to a community they love and think they have the wherewithal to make it a better place.
In that regard, Toomb's three decades of service to Lebanon was a rousing success.
Working with John Hitt, Lebanon's longtime city manager, Toomb was an essential part of building the plan that helped the city emerge from the economic funk that afflicted many similar towns across the West, as the timber harvest from national forests started to decline.
For example, Toomb and Hitt were key players in convincing Lowe's to build a regional distribution center in Lebanon, a major breakthrough for the city. It's worth noting that city officials had done considerable work to upgrade Lebanon's infrastructure even before the Lowe's project came around, so the city was in a better position to attract exactly that kind of big economic win.
But you still need a little bit of luck and a touch of stubbornness. Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist this week recalled an encounter with Toomb and Hitt that began with a phone call one morning: Could Nyquist come by for a meeting later that day?
When Nyquist arrived with Linn County Roadmaster Darrin Lane, Toomb gave them the news. There was a chance of landing a major employer in Lebanon. But there was a catch: In order to make it happen, they needed $1 million from the county to build a road.
We would like to believe that Nyquist, a gentleman of manners, took this news well. But Nyquist has a slightly different recollection: "The meeting didn't go well," he told the Lebanon Express newspaper, and he stood up to walk out.
Toomb, however, was a step or two faster: "Ken beat me to the door," Nyquist recalled, "and wouldn't let me leave."
The eventual result: Lebanon got its road. And the Lowe's facility followed, providing a vital spark to the city's economic resurgence.
In relatively short order, the city had landed the deal to build a veterans home in the community. And Lebanon became the home to a new medical school.
Shelly Garrett, the executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, got to watch Toomb at work for years: "He didn't sit around waiting for things to happen. He was out there representing the city."
And representing the city well: Among other honors, he received the 2010 Mayor's Leadership Award from the Oregon Mayors Conference.
Because Nyquist didn't get the last word in that conversation years ago with Toomb when the topic was whether the county had a million bucks to help build the road for Lowe's, we'll give it to him today:
"If the measure of a man is leaving his community better than he found it, then Ken Toomb was wildly successful."
We couldn't put it any better. (mm)