Nearly six miles from downtown Albany, just off Interstate 5, is a booming commercial town. Known as Millersburg – though some mistakenly assume it’s just part of Albany – it contains a thriving economy that has persisted for decades.
But there is more to the city than meets the eye. Its reputation as an industrial hub may have preceded it, but a transition is underway. More and more people call Millersburg not only their workplace, but also their home.
From 2000 to 2010, its population grew from 651 to 1,329, according to the Portland State University Research Center. The years between 2010 and 2020 saw another 119% spike, with a climb to 2,919, figures from Portland State University show.
Last year, the US census recorded 3,093 people residing in the 4.43 square mile city. These numbers mean that Millersburg has more than tripled in size over the past 20 years.
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But what exactly is driving the surge? Why are so many people suddenly flocking to this small town?
Born from pain
It started with the 2008 recession.
In 2009, private farmland owners began selling their property following the collapse of the housing market. As interest rates were virtually zero percent, buyers began to flood residential areas of Millersburg.
That’s when the then-pastoral town saw its population skyrocket, said Pattie Dunn Post, who has lived in Millersburg since 1993. Dunn Post left Philomath with her husband Dave out of a desire to own more land. and live closer to work.
Now, with new homes being steadily built to accommodate new residents, she said the quiet rural life she had grown accustomed to was being uprooted.
“If I had known about the growth, I don’t think I would have liked to live here,” she said by phone. “I hate to see him change, but it’s just progress.”
Mayor Jim Lepin, who moved to the area in 2010, said development plans for Becker Ridge were already in place before the recession hit. He attributes this construction to the increase in the number of residential houses seen today.
“Industrial growth has allowed the city to create infrastructure – streets and facilities – for residential growth,” he said by phone. “Now we have enough land for an expected growth of up to 20 years.”
Katrina Husbands Burch moved into a newly built house in northeast Millersburg with her husband in 2004, partly out of a desire for an easier commute to Salem, but also because she was lured by the lower taxes advertised in Linn County.
“The stationery provided a lot of income,” she said over the phone.
Although that plant closed a few years after Husbands Burch moved to the area, she believes the prospect of a minimum 10,000 square foot lot and the lowest property tax in Linn County continues to attract new residents.
But low property taxes do not necessarily mean low house prices.
In 2010, the premium rate averaged $75,000 for a quarter acre lot. Now that number has more than doubled, according to real estate broker Sherri Perlenfein.
“People here aren’t interested in low- and middle-income housing,” Husbands Burch said. “There aren’t really any multi-housing anymore here apart from a street of duplexes. Houses are going for crazy numbers right now.
Millersburg was incorporated in 1974 to prevent Albany from annexing the Teledyne Wah Chang (now ATI Wah Chang) processing plant, the city’s largest employer to this day.
At first, the proposed plan delineated heavy industrial areas, but Linn County called for the inclusion of more residential properties, according to the Millersburg website.
David Solomon lived north of Conser Road, which has been identified as necessary for residential growth, for four years, drawn to the town’s “nice, quiet, country” atmosphere.
Although the New York native said he found it for a while in the outskirts of Millersburg, recent construction of new homes is quickly hurting the peace.
“It was in the countryside when I moved in. I could be in my garden and look at the mountains,” he said over the phone. “Now I’m looking at two rows of houses.”
Solomon added that residents in his block, some occupying newly built homes, are already moving out due to growth.
“They are losing what they came here for,” he said. “The calm and beauty of the region. Tell me when it stops.
While some move to this small town for a taste of rural life, others seek a crime-free community. But just like tranquility, growth moves the needle, changing what attracted newcomers to it.
Crime reports rose from 26 in 2017 to 191 in 2021. Linn County Sheriff Michelle Duncan attributed it to a growing population.
“When you have more people, more things are going to happen,” Duncan said over the phone. “When you look at per capita rates, Millersburg is still a very safe city to live in. And as a resident, I think the city has done a good job of keeping growth and public services in check.”
Despite the rapid conversion of farmland to residential areas to streamline rapid growth, community development manager Matt Straite said it was natural and “meant” to change.
“Agricultural land within the limits of urban growth has always been temporary and meant to be developed,” he said. “Development pressure is coming and driving up half the land.”
Melissa Segovia-Miller has lived for 31 years on a two-story farmhouse across from a dairy. She said that just as development pushes the current rate of farmland through the roof, the cost of farm equipment has skyrocketed – and farmers are struggling to justify the new prices.
“Fertilizers that used to cost $30,000 can now cost $60,000 to $100,000,” she said over the phone. “If you don’t have property, you can’t farm.”
Regarding the impact of growth on the city itself, Straite said that other than a slight increase in traffic, he did not detect any tangible change in relation to population growth.
“There’s not a single traffic light in the whole city,” he laughs. “But we’ve seen a lot more interest in the industry, which has allowed us to build more parks, and more are on the way.”
Segovia-Miller added that Millersburg’s easy access from the freeway could be a selling point for new residents as they navigate the city.
It’s by design
Straite said Millersburg maintains “a unique development model” in its infrastructure design, with most homes located on 10,000 square foot lots. Additionally, the city has nearly 200 acres of industrial estate property, which is “rare in most jurisdictions.”
“We use this as an economic tool to develop industrially in the city,” he said.
When it comes to housing, the next residential wave isn’t expected until individual landlords decide to sell their land to developers, Straite said. And while the city continues to expand, the exact timing of the wave’s arrival is unknown.
“These larger plots of land are really tied to one family now. Property values in the city are increasing at a faster rate than all other surrounding communities,” he said. “And we run out of houses as they become more valuable.”
Asked about an ultimate building number the city might have in mind, relating to homes, residents or businesses, Lepin said the waters remain murky.
“It’s hard to predict because the state forces us to keep growing,” he said. “When we reduce the amount of buildable land, we have to redraw the boundary of urban growth to accommodate the changes.”
Despite the uncertainties, Lepin predicts that the population will reach 5,000 within 10 to 15 years.
Although an inventory of buildable land and analysis of housing needs was recently completed to track the increase, it was riddled with bad data and false assumptions, leading to insufficient support from the city council .
Lepin said the city “is on the verge” of further development, after going through a three-year process to square land use codes. But at least for now, those are the calls from the farmers.
“Our only control is really to make sure we’re consistent in applying the codes,” he said. “We have the infrastructure in place that will feed into and tie into future policies as the city grows.”