ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Departing Talent city manager reflects on Almeda Fire recovery, city priorities

Talent City Manager Jordan Rooklyn will step down from the job Sept. 7. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch
August 1, 2023

Jordan Rooklyn to step down Sept. 7 after about 2 years in the post

By Kevin Opsahl, Rogue Valley Times

Jordan Rooklyn became Talent city manager 11 months after the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda Fire, and recovery from the blaze has dominated her time on the job.

Rooklyn grew up in Ashland, but when the fire broke out she was living in Portland, where she worked as a performance analyst for the Portland Water Bureau. 

As the fire raged, family and friends sent images of the devastation to her in Portland, and she saw a very different Rogue Valley than the one she remembered as a little girl.

“For me, seeing the scale of the fire, seeing through videos and photos what the valley looked like, I knew I wanted to come back,” Rooklyn said. “I wanted to focus on building the community here as part of that recovery.”

Now, two years after she was hired by Talent City Council in August 2021, Rooklyn is stepping down. She announced last week that her last day would be Sept. 7.

In an interview Friday, Rooklyn touted the progress that has been made in rebuilding the city.

Her departure has to do with a new direction her life has taken. Rooklyn and her husband eloped in February, and the couple are planning a ceremony with family and friends at her parents’ Ashland home in October.

“My sole focus has been in supporting Talent’s recovery and fulfilling my role as city manager,” Rooklyn said. “I was at a point where I also wanted to focus on other aspects of my life — family, health and … being more present for my personal life.”

Talent follows the council manager form of government, which means the elected city council members who set policy appoint an official with managerial experience to lead city staff, which implements the policies.

“It’s a whole team effort,” Rooklyn said.

When she became city manager, Talent’s staffing levels were down. It meant, for example, that Ashland police had to cover half the city’s law enforcement shifts. But with staffing levels back to normal, Talent is providing a 24/7 police force on its own, Rooklyn noted.

With a full staff, Rooklyn said, the city has 27 employees and will add another later this year, with the hiring of a school resource officer.

“I’m most proud of the team we’ve built,” Rooklyn said. “Talent should be very proud of the staff they have serving them.”

While she touts a full staff, they’re not without challenges, like burnout. A June 13 City Council study session saw Rooklyn recommending numerous ways to deal with the issue, including hiring a deputy city manager, which could reduce her position to part-time. Councilors, who expressed confidence in Rooklyn, also suggested hiring a personal assistant for her.

“Without a good team in place, we can’t get the other things done,” Rooklyn said in an interview.

Nursing the staffing levels comes on top of other initiatives Rooklyn has implemented, including five-year goals. These include an emergency preparedness plan to reduce the risk of wildfires; encouraging walking and the use of bikes over transportation; and building more affordable housing.

But recovery from the Almeda Fire has taken center stage during Rooklyn’s tenure.

“What I saw was completely empty lots,” Rooklyn said. “It was powerful to see how quickly one moment can change an entire neighborhood.”

But there were some rays of sunshine, so to speak, in her first tour of Talent to inspect the damage — like artwork people made from the debris.

“This incredible community resilience (was) literally present in the ashes of the fire,” Rooklyn said.

Talent lost 759 structures in the Almeda Fire, including 662 homes — 70% of which have either been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt, according to information Rooklyn provided.

“This is incredible progress for post-disaster,” Rooklyn said. “We still have a long way to go. We have a lot of manufactured homes that still need to be placed.”

Rooklyn also noted that Talent’s business sector has come a long way since the fire, but reviving the economy remains one of the city’s biggest challenges.

“(The recovery) cannot be associated with any one person; I am not the cause of Talent’s recovery,” Rooklyn said. “Not only have we seen buildings come back up — we’ve seen the community come back.”

While she said that Talent’s recovery from the fire will be “decades to come,” Rooklyn said it has been “a village effort that we are in that more stable place.”

One of the things Rooklyn is most proud of is the community’s “difficult discussion” around the Almeda Fire Recovery and Revitalization Plan, which voters overwhelmingly rejected during a special election in May. Rooklyn — ​who was executive director of the Talent Urban Renewal Agency — had drafted the urban renewal plan at council’s direction after community members voiced concerns about the initial one.

Rooklyn called it “an interesting question” when asked whether she could have done anything differently to sway the vote in favor of the plan.

“I don’t have the right answer — the community does,” she said. “The fact that the community made their voice known is the correct policy direction. To look back and think, ‘Oh, if I had done this’ — I don’t know what the answer would be.”

Talent City Council will discuss the recruiting and hiring process for a new city manager at its next meeting Aug. 2, according to Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood, who praised Rooklyn’s leadership.

“Jordan’s been an incredible asset to our community — dedication from Day 1, working extraordinarily hard all the way through,” Ayers-Flood said. “I was telling her today how saddened I am that she’s moving on.”

“At the same time, I completely respect her decision and why she needs to focus on health and family,” Ayers-Flood said. “There’s nothing more important than that.”

As she sets her sights on her departure, Rooklyn said she wants to thank the Talent community. 

“I am so grateful to be a part of this community in the way that I have,” she said. “I will keep being part of this community even after I no longer sit in this chair.”

Reporter Kevin Opsahl can be reached at 458-488-2034 or kopsahl@rv-times.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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