Located east of I-5 and nestled along the Cowlitz River, Toledo, Washington, is a close-knit little town with a small population of around 725 people. When a fire in 2010 destroyed an historic building, and other businesses closed because of the economy, some may have thought that the end was near for the town. But they may have underestimated the resilience and spirit of the community – even those community members who had moved away.
Several former Toledo students contacted the City and their retired teacher, Mike Morgan, who is the owner of Morgan Arts Centre and Art Gallery 505 located in downtown Toledo. “We don’t want to see the town die,” they told him. “We want to do something.” So they came back to town and sat down and started brainstorming. What they came up with – Vision: Toledo – has transformed Toledo.
Morgan is excited about all the grassroots group has accomplished in a short time. “We’re working with the city on a gazebo, planters, and sculptures. We worked with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. They took over the Gospodor Monument by the freeway. They ended up giving us the eagle sculpture to place in downtown Toledo.”
“We’re doing a lot to spruce up the town. Our main project is on hold right now, but it will be a big mural, a painting. It’s a fanciful depiction of Toledo past, present, and future. The artist, Paola de La Concha Zindel, is a delightful person, full of enthusiasm,” he reports.
Another project they are working hard to accomplish is a big mural on the water storage tank for the city. “It will be more historically realistic, like a photograph. It will have the Toledo Riverboat and some people, but we don’t know exactly who that will be yet,” says Morgan.
The group is also working with the city on the “Cool and Connected” project. Toledo is one of five communities in the nation to have a technical group from the East Coast come out to help plan how to better use broadband and fiber optics to increase economic development.
The consultants met with businesses, education staff, and other groups. They also held an open house, interviewing people to learn from their ideas for utilizing broadband to improve the town. “Toledo Tel [the local phone company] has put in fiber optics to every tax parcel – that’s about 380 square miles,” says Morgan. “Everyone has the ability to get 1 GB of broadband. You could set up a calling center, or run a medical analysis. It’s really as good as it gets. Usually it’s only large cities that have that kind of capacity. Somebody could come to Toledo and say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place to live. The internet it fabulous. Maybe I should buy here’,” Morgan explains.
Paula Burrows, Real Estate Agent at Windermere Centralia, as well as a Toledo resident and another former student of Morgan’s, is excited about the impact of Vision: Toledo’s work as well. “Toledo is becoming home to many new residents who are enjoying the rural quality lifestyle that Toledo offers. A small community, farm land, the Cowlitz River and gigabit internet service being available to the entire area are some of what is attracting new residents. Buyers are discovering the Toledo area, which offers affordable housing and land prices.”
“We’re using basically any kind of idea that works,” Morgan goes on to say. “We want to improve the appearance and vitality of the community. We’re not in conflict with other groups, we work in concert with them. For instance, with the Veteran’s Day Parade, the organizer held it in Winlock for a few years. Then they came to us and asked if Vision: Toledo would like to help out. We don’t really want to run parades, but the Lion’s Club already organizes another parade. So we talked to them and now they are the sponsors of the Lewis County Veteran’s Day Parade.”
“I like to think of Vision: Toledo as the conduit that moves things up,” explains Morgan. “The Bluegrass Festival folks contacted us about coming to a meeting, and we helped spread their information. We worked with the Cowlitz Prairie Grange Threshing Bee to get the word out, as well as the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Pow Wow in September. There is now a community calendar with the schedule of all the events in one place. We don’t want to take over and do everything, we just want to help figure out who is best to do whatever it is, and make sure and get everyone connected that needs to be.”
“We have a lot happening. Our filmmaker, Andy Lahmann, has made three films that are online at Vision: Toledo. He did a great job, they are well-done, very professional. We plan to continue working with the city in every way that we can.