Owner of historic Malmgren Garage building hopes state grant will boost $1 million reconstruction plan
By Kevin Harden for Ashland.news
Nearly 18 months after the devastating Almeda Fire destroyed her downtown Talent business and burned through a swath of the Southern Oregon town between Medford and Ashland, Bonnie K. Morgan is cobbling together more than $1 million to rebuild.
It’s her way of preserving the “soul” of the historic 98-year-old Malmgren Garage building that held her West Coast pottery distribution company, and other businesses, for decades. Morgan wants to lead the way to rebuild a section of downtown Talent on the north side of Talent Avenue, southwest of Highway 99, that the wildfire reduced to ashes.
“I just couldn’t stand having the downtown looking so awful,” said Morgan, who lives in Ashland and has owned the building at 111 Talent Ave. since the late 1970s. “I felt like we needed to do something just to say, ‘Hey, we’re coming back.’ It’s such a classic building. The building burned, but it still had its soul, so I wanted to rebuild it.”
If she’s successful, Morgan could be the first business to rebuild in the burned-out section of downtown Talent. Eight businesses along Talent Avenue were lost to the fire. Morgan said other business owners are taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping for additional funding to cover the gap between insurance payments and reconstruction costs.
“People are watching this project,” said Jon Legarza, a consultant with Wilsonville’s Healthy Sustainable Communities hired two years ago to help the city of Talent expand its housing. “This will be one of the first commercial projects to rebuild downtown. Once folks see occupancy taking place, they’ll be more comfortable to do something with their properties.”
Legarza worked with Morgan to apply for a $200,000 Oregon Main Street Revitalization grant as part of the project’s funding package. Other funds include about $575,000 from an insurance payoff for the building, to which Morgan plans to add $235,000.
State Parks and Recreation officials received 39 applications for nearly $7 million in Main Street grant funds. The agency, whose Historic Preservation Office oversees the program, has about $5 million to spend this year, so roughly two dozen of the requests could get money. Successful project applicants will be notified in mid-May.
Morgan said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the Main Street Revitalization grant. “That would be such a great shot in the arm for someone at the state level to say, ‘This project merits our help.’ ”
Legarza hopes the grant would ease some concerns by other businesses as they consider rebuilding. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “It could be a catalytic starter to bring confidence back.”
Supporting local businesses
Three people died in the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda Fire that swept through a greenspace North of Ashland. Propelled by unusually high winds, the fire destroyed more than 2,600 homes and 170 businesses in the small town along the Pacific Highway.
Nine wildfires that hit several Oregon counties in 2020 forced more than 85,000 people to leave their homes and left about $6 billion in property damage, according to state reports.
Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood told the Legislature’s House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery in early February that the Almeda Fire destroyed nearly two-thirds of the town’s brick-and-mortar businesses. She also told the committee that the fire added to the town’s housing crisis and accelerated efforts to “support our business community’s rebuilding both along the highway business corridor as well as our downtown.”
“We are focused on supporting affordable housing,” Ayers-Flood told the committee during an online hearing. “We had a housing crisis before that was made worse by the fire. What was a shortfall to begin with has become a very deep hole for us.”
Legarza said a study of the city’s needs by Southern Oregon University graduate students found several barriers to businesses hoping to rebuild. The 112-page review of the town’s situation was presented to officials in mid-March. Among its findings: owners of local businesses destroyed by the fire faced a big gap between insurance payoffs and escalating construction costs. A handful of proposed solutions included providing incentives to spur rebuilding, offering technical assistance to businesses hoping to rebuild and working with the town to find business insurance that could cover rebuilding costs from future disasters.
“Coming together and supporting one another as a community will increase the likelihood of business re-entry during difficult times such as the Almeda Fire,” according to the SOU review led by business professors Donna Lane and Mark Siders.
Legarza said the review clarified challenges facing local business owners who lost property in the fire. Most are concerned about an uncertain future if they invest in rebuilding, he said.
“We’re just trying to help where we can,” Legarza said. “We’re trying to remove any barriers to recovery. That’s the most important thing we can do right now.”
‘A lot of character’
Morgan is jumping into the rebuilding project with both feet. She has retained Ashland architect Jerome White and Hoppes Construction of Eagle Point to do the project. It’s expected to be a full historic rehabilitation of the building, something that poses design and construction challenges, Morgan said, because she hopes to nominate the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
“When I talk to the property owners around me, it is a wait-and-see situation for them,” she said. “I love old buildings. I think they have a lot of character. That’s the reason I want to do this.”
Before the fire, Morgan hired Ashland historic preservation consultant George Kramer to write the complex nomination report for the Malmgren Garage building. Kramer also wrote the historic nomination report for Morgan’s other downtown Talent building, 1906 Hanscom Hall, which for decades held the Talent Café. That building was named to the National Register in 1996.
Hanscom Hall was one of the businesses destroyed in the fire. The Malmgren Garage was gutted, leaving only its masonry shell.
The Malmgren Garage building was built in 1924 by Dr. Theodore J. Malmgren as an automobile service station. It was modified in 1925. Between February 1978 and August 2008, Morgan and her late husband, Bill, operated Southern Oregon Pottery Supply from the building. The Morgans and a corporation of local potters sold clay, chemicals, glazes, tools, kilns and pottery wheels across the West to elementary and secondary schools, colleges and others.
In late October, Clayfolk held a pop-up Out of the Fire pottery sale at the empty building to help raise money for wildfire victims.
Today, the building shell sits along Talent Avenue among empty lots. Morgan said that during her trips into Talent, she often sees people walk through the building, admiring the remaining structure.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving in Talent and see people wandering through the building taking photos,” Morgan said. “It’s such a beautiful building. I saw someone the other day sketching the building. That sort of reaffirms in my mind the importance of this building to the community.”
Email freelance writer Kevin Harden at Klharden503@gmail.com.