By Michael Wallen
Thomas Price was with the famous skateboarder Tony Hawk when he paid a visit to Willamalane Skatepark last year. Hawk had already opened the Springfield, Oregon park in 2003 and returned in 2007 to record a video endorsing the city as the Springfield to host the premiere of The Simpsons Movie. What impressed Price, a former youth minister with a Catholic parish in northern California, was the way that Hawk came to make himself available to the local youth as an ordinary person rather than a celebrity.
“The biggest thing for me was how much Tony Hawk really cared.” Price says. To show his appreciation for Hawk and stay in touch, he asked Hawk to follow him on Twitter.
Though he says his son Jonah (JyoNah on Twitter) is the real social media expert in the family, Thomas Price (ThomastheBrave) is always using the internet to network with people for the benefit of Churchill Area Neighbors. As this Eugene, Oregon, neighborhood’s chair, Price is one of three people on a board that calls for eight positions. The Tony Hawk story comes up near the end of a two-hour meeting in the kitchen of Valley Covenant Church at the corner of 18th and Bailey Hill Road. Earlier came the most urgent item on the agenda. The Seneca sawmill is currently constructing a biomass plant in the neighborhood, and Price, an environmental scientist, wants regulatory action on the particulate matter the plant will pump into the neighborhood air in the name of green energy.
Contacting your State Representative
Price sits at the center of the flat side of a large half-oval table, flanked by the neighborhood vice chair Craig Thompton and Pastor Steve Blinsky. Ten other people sit around the round side of the table. In his cargo shorts and dull green Crater Lake T-shirt, Price is at the casual end of a gathering favoring smart casual with short-sleeved collared shirts, like the patterned light green one worn by State Representative Paul Holvey at the opposite end of the kitchen. Holvey represents District 8, which includes most of Churchill, at the state legislature in Salem. He sits in an aluminum and firm plastic chair about five feet back from the table, leaning forward to listen as Price gives him an earful about Seneca.
“Ask for air emissions studies.” Price says, punctuating his words with gestures of his large, lightly tanned hands. Price is a stout man of average height. His full head of dark, neatly trimmed hair is graying from the front, which combines with his conservative, metal-framed eyeglasses to produce a distinguished look.
The group around the table appears hopeful about action to mitigate the Seneca facility’s effluent. As the meeting moves to other neighborhood issues, Churchill’s lack of grocery stores is a big concern. There’s a huge empty building that held one when he moved into the area in 1997. Price wants a new one, as well as a farmers market.
“That’d be a great first step, the farmer’s market,” Holvey says.
Blinsky, who’s up headed for the coffee maker that fills the room with its aroma, says “You could do something like that in our parking lot too.”
“I was gonna ask you about that,” Price says, then laughs.
13 Years in Oregon
Price was an environmental scientist dealing with the redwoods in northern California in the mid-1990s when he decided pollution of groundwater was the prime environmental issue. He got certified to deal with hazardous materials, known in the industry as HazMat. In 1997, he brought his family to Eugene to take a job with the Hynix plant.
He was in an office downtown when he took two bike rides into Churchill, discovered how friendly the neighbors were and decided to move in.
After his car was broken into twice, Price decided there had to be something he could do to clean up his community, not just its environment. He found Churchill Area Neighbors online and started out as their Area 2 representative.
In 2008, when the Hynix plant closed, Price went to work on global warming issues. He continued his activity in the neighborhood, becoming vice chair last year. This year, he’s the chair. It’s a one-year job, and he hopes to leave behind a larger board when he steps down.
A Quiet War
Price opens the gate of a tall cyclone fence that runs next to Bailey Hill Plaza, a short walk from Valley Covenant Church. Inside, he walks around the Valley West community, where green and open spaces the city required be put in sit locked off and barely used.
“It’s kind of a quiet war.” he says. The sweltering July sun beats down on the verdant green field where he’s standing. Nearby are the concrete foot path, basketball court and a swimming pool Valley West agreed to put in with trees and open grass for public use. They’re sitting unused, and when Churchill High School across the street is in session, local teenagers have to take circuitous detours to get home. Before the development made itself a gated community, they could walk right through the grass.
Price hopes to fix this problem. He’d also like to channel the energy of the youth who, he says, “basically own” the skate park and illegally tag graffiti all around it by getting City of Eugene Parks & Recreation to make the skate park an official place for graffiti art. At the neighborhood meeting, he asked Blinsky about getting the church’s youth minister involved with those youth.
A more urgent hope for the future, however, is raising awareness of the potential pollution problem from Seneca. Price would like to see a lot more local residents get active about the environmental issues here. Publicizing through social media has the potential to help organize the neighborhood.
“If we’re not living up to our best outcomes, we’ll live our worst outcomes.” he says.