Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Rethinking Lewis County, Vol. 1: On the revitalization of downtown Centralia


During my time as a reporter at The Chronicle, I was always fascinated with the continued revitalization of downtown Centralia. Though I’m not a journalist anymore, I still maintain that fascination and am eager to keep up with the goings-on there.

Downtown Centralia has seen a great deal of success in the past couple of years especially, and it just takes one drive along Tower Avenue to see what’s going on. The marquee on the Fox Theatre is a microcosm of downtown, itself being a brand-new symbol of a historic property in the middle of a giant overhaul. Further along the street, fewer and fewer vacant spaces exist and some businesses that just got on their feet a few years ago are beginning to emerge as mainstays.

It remains to be seen whether economic success is happening on a large scale, but the most promising sign is that reports of businesses in the downtown core closing are very few and far between.

That’s why I was somewhat surprised when I saw that The Station, a coffee bar in downtown Centralia, shut down abruptly the other day. Staff posted a note on the door that the recently renovated and re-branded coffee stop — I believe it was the first sit-down coffee lounge in the Twin Cities, and I don’t count Starbucks in that category — that it was closed and they thanked customers for their business.

I’m not exactly sure what caused its closure, partly because I don’t work there and also because I didn’t stop there much. Maybe it was the fact that the coffee shop market in Centralia is pretty well diversified already, and maybe it was product quality. I’m not sure, but if anything, I believe it should have been in prime position to succeed if for no other reason than its location directly across Tower Avenue from the Fox Theatre (which has become a huge draw in the past year especially with its twice-monthly movie series).

It’s interesting that I bring that up because I really have never said (and I was the business and economy reporter at the paper) in the three years I’ve lived here that any portion of downtown has been primed for any remote amount of success. The economy sucked a lot of the life out of downtown for awhile, unemployment rates skyrocketed and it was downright tough to generate any amount of money.

But three big things that have all taken place recently have turned that story around almost completely:

1. The Fox Theatre’s continued draw in terms of tickets sold, events held and general interest in the continued renovation
2. The recent sale of the Wilson Hotel and the restoration project of the hotel and annex with a pretty aggressive timeline
3. Centralia Square Ballroom & Hotel’s renovation as a hotel and wedding venue that is booked to the gills

There’s a common thread among all those: renovation. People have ponied up some serious cash because they have a vision that their projects can succeed, and they’re doing it for the right reasons: aside from the business opportunities, they’re all investing in the heart and soul of a town.

Back to the now-closed coffee bar: if someone were to come in and turn that into something unique downtown, it might take off. But it has to do one or both of two things: draw foot traffic and make enough of a profit to be sustainable. Those go without saying, for sure, but I want to expound upon the foot traffic concept briefly…

I’ve always personally noticed that places that do well and stay open might not necessarily be making a ton of money, but they’re drawing a lot of people for whatever reason. A popular example where I lived in Springfield, Missouri was an 80’s-themed arcade called 1984. They only charged $5 for someone to play all the games they wanted all evening, and it was for that reason the place was packed every time I went.

It was a great idea because the fact the place was full all the time would draw more people over to see what was going on. Activity is contagious.

I’m not saying someone should throw an 80’s-themed arcade in downtown Centralia — okay, maybe I am — but if you see my point, it would be really cool to see something become a center of cultural activity that could sustain itself.

My friend Lucy, who co-owns Santa Lucia Coffee across Locust Street with her husband Justin, chimed in on my Facebook wall the other day that she would like to see Centralia College open an extension of its library there. That fits in so well with the theme of being a hub of activity and even extends it by bringing an entirely different sector of the population downtown that otherwise might not go: young adults who otherwise wouldn’t take a second look at an antique shop or other business they might have just glanced by as they rushed past in a car.

The culture in downtown Centralia is varying, and it is interesting to note that low-income apartments and luxury lofts are within mere blocks of each other. I wouldn’t call it gentrification just yet, but even five/six years ago there were no lofts downtown. Now you are attracting a sector of the population that, hopefully, will stay downtown. But more on that point itself in a future post as I’ll explore the concept of new urbanism and how I think it could benefit Centralia.

This has been just the beginning of a bunch of unfinished thoughts and concepts I had in a reporter’s notebook as I had wanted to do somewhat of a story series on the revitalization of Centralia. I want to start a series on this blog about rethinking the culture of Lewis County’s towns as it pertains to growth, the economy and our area’s perception. This is just the start of that, and hopefully in future posts that will be coming along quite shortly we can facilitate some cool dialogue.

My next blog on this subject will pertain to some challenges downtown Centralia faces with being removed from the I-5 corridor and whether or not the new sports complex will actually be a benefit to downtown. Stay tuned.

Got any thoughts? Leave a comment and let’s talk!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My review of the movie “God’s Not Dead”

“God’s Not Dead” is on Netflix.

Please don’t watch it.

It started out really good. The Lionsgate logo and animation is top-notch, but from there it just got worse.

The message is poignant, but the plot is so far-fetched that the mall fight from Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” was more believable.

By the way, here’s that fight scene, which is much shorter than the movie and much more stirring.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Life, post-journalism: The first three weeks

I knew leaving the world of journalism after more than a decade in the business would be a big change. I just didn’t know how much of a change it would be.

Right now, I’m helping create a tourism website for Lewis County by writing and curating a bunch of content. Today was day 12 of the new job, and it feels like I’ve been a part of the team for awhile, having dove headfirst into the work. I’m still a storyteller, but more of a raconteur than a professional writer and that’s fine by me. Work involves a ton of research, and days like today fly by when I’m immersed in multiple tasks related to what we’re doing.

It’s also great to work alongside multiple people who share the same faith, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere that this has been the case. What a blessing.

Working an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift isn’t anything new, but the fact that I have not received a call or email about work or had to finish a bit of last-minute work is. It’s a nice change, and I’ve taken advantage of it by meeting up with some friends and relaxing a bit more.

What is odd is that I now pick up the newspaper to read it and I don’t know the content in advance. That’s something I’m getting used to, and that’s the biggest change: not being in the know about everything anymore. There was something exciting about being able to report breaking news when it happened or be a subject matter expert in a complex story. I do miss that from time to time, and especially so when I pick up the paper.

It’s also odd to attend meetings that I used to cover for the newspaper and be a presenter rather than a reporter. I just hope I speak as naturally as I was able to write.

Perhaps the change that I like most is the fact I can leave work and be home no more than two minutes later. It’s 1 minute 20 seconds by car, 2 minutes 24 seconds by bike and about 7 or 8 by foot. Again, it’s a tremendous blessing.

Long-term, I can see myself staying in Lewis County for awhile. That might be a laughable thought coming from a guy who hasn’t lived anywhere for more than two years since moving away from home in 2002, but this time it just might ring true.

All praise and glory is due to the Lord for his work in my life and those around me who have experienced similar blessings!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

Travelogue: Lower, Middle and Upper Lewis River Falls

Lower Lewis River Falls looks especially awesome in the morning with the sun at a lower angle.
Lower Lewis River Falls looks especially awesome in the morning with the sun at a lower angle.

A beautiful Northwest Saturday gave the perfect opportunity to take a short yet rewarding hike to an area that is home to some picturesque waterfalls that must be seen in person to be thoroughly enjoyed.

A group of guys from my church and I drove about 110 miles from Lewis County to the Lower Lewis Falls Recreation Area, home to the aptly-named Lower Lewis River Falls. The waterfall there was gorgeous, but a three-mile hike to the upper falls was well worth it.

Here are some photos from our trip:

Lower Lewis River Falls, again gorgeous with the sun casting a nice color on it.
Lower Lewis River Falls, again gorgeous with the sun casting a nice color on it.
There was quite a good volume of water even with the low snowpack this winter.
There was quite a good volume of water even with the low snowpack this winter.
Stairway to heaven?
Stairway to heaven?

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Monday, 13 April 2015

Closing the book on a decade-long journalism career

I have been a blessed man when it comes to my career choice thus far.

How else can I describe a journey that started in the Air Force and went to a TV station then two newspapers, eventually ascending to the senior reporter role at The Chronicle in Centralia, Washington with no college experience?

I described to a friend last week how my career in journalism began: I entered the Air Force fresh out of high school and made the choice to be an explosive ordnance disposal technician, then thought better of it and had a chance meeting with a master sergeant who offered me the chance to take a voice audition and try to see if I could become a newsreader for the American Forces Network.

I passed, and the rest is history, as they say, but there is a critical component of the four years I spent in the military that made me marketable to civilian employers despite the fact I had not set foot in a college classroom. The six months I spent deployed to Iraq as a journalist were the single most important in determining my career path.

The experience I gained as a one-man band proved invaluable. I had some great mentors in the Air Force who taught me how to shoot and edit video, write concisely, operate a radio board, speak effectively and make sure your words have the most impact.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to do contract work for a TV station in Portland at age 23, then shoot video for a newspaper’s website in Springfield, Missouri, where they let me write a few articles and taught me AP style. After I returned to the Northwest, I took my first full-time reporting position at The Chronicle, in a community in which my family has some roots — shallow somewhat, but roots nonetheless.

Funny thing, I left The Chronicle in 2012 yet came right back here last year because I missed the job and the people here a lot. I’m now in my fourth year reporting at The Chronicle.

Some stories have tugged at my heartstrings. As a military veteran, one of the most difficult stories I had to write was penned earlier this year when a local soldier took his own life after coming back from war. I still pray for his family to this day.

Other stories have been fun. Several people got a good chuckle when I began the first five paragraphs in a story about a local high school play about the ’80s with “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

But amid the hundreds of stories I’ve covered, there has been one that served as a perspective shifter that rendered me more prayerful and thoughtful since.

It was a simple assignment to visit the Lewis County Gospel Mission and report on their fundraising drive to buy the building they are renting. For those who don’t know, the Gospel Mission holds a breakfast and lunch free of charge for the needy, a clothing bank and much more with a Christian ministry.

As I visited, shot photos and talked to people for my story, I interviewed one man who said he had been in a place of destitution but it was a ministry similar to the Gospel Mission that brought him out of it. That day, he brought forth the devotion and prayed for the meal served, then went to converse with everyone who visited.

The man proceeded to tell me that his volunteerism at the mission was his way of thanking the Lord for bringing him out of a dark place.

I don’t exactly know why, but that hit me pretty hard and I began to think on the impact that people willing to serve and invest in his life had. That gentleman was a success story: a believer in Christ who is now doing ministry of his own to people who would be an afterthought to most.

I have had a heart for the destitute, disadvantaged and depressed for some time, but that visit to the Gospel Mission that day set forth something in motion in my heart in which I wanted to seek a venue to help people in similar fashion whether through my church, civic collaborative efforts or the mission itself. As I have been blessed, so I should bless others.

It’s incredibly difficult to feel a love for a community you want to get involved in, yet be restrained from helping as effectively as you know you could because of the nature of one’s job in that journalists are supposed to report without bias or favor. I’ve understood that and adhered to it, but as a man whose heart is to want to step behind the scenes and be a part of an intensifying community-wide effort to minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ to whosoever will hear the message, I have realized that I can’t be fully effective in that effort while at the same time employed at a news agency.

As such, I began to seek a change in career after seeking wise counsel from people I consider to be mentors.

My search has paid off, and I find myself at the end of my journalism career come this Friday with a switch to a new career beginning next week.

The end of a career choice I partially stumbled onto by chance that was guided by the hand of the Lord Himself to where I am now has brought back a flood of memories since I announced to my colleagues two weeks ago that I would be leaving the newspaper, yet staying in the local area. I’ll miss the profession and its value to the community, and there’s a big part of me that will miss coming in to proofread the paper on deadline days, in essence reading it before the general public gets to. There’s also something really neat about digging up information and knowing it before anyone else, then becoming a subject matter expert on the material.

But when I look at the big picture, I realize that the pull on my heartstrings as a result of the story I covered at the Gospel Mission was a call to listen to the Lord and where He would guide me next. At this time next week I will have started a new job, but what I think is more important is what I’m now freed up to do.

I look forward to further serving in Life Center, my church home here in Centralia. I also look forward to further helping out in ministries that until now, I could only pray for or be minimally involved in.

I look back with a major appreciation for the people who took chances on me, trained me and helped me become a better journalist. I’m going to name some names here, so here goes: Jennifer Wessner, who was my radio supervisor at Lajes Field in 2003 and taught me to have fun while effectively doing my job; Lee Lieburn, who taught me a lot of the video editing skills I know today and sang “Pigs on the Wing” duets with me a few times; the good people at Fox 12 Oregon who gave me a chance to edit and shoot video straight out of the military; Dean Curtis and Jerome Nakagawa, who were two of the better photographers I knew who taught me a lot about a subject I was interested in but didn’t know a lot of technical details of; Brian Mittge and Michael Wagar, then-editors of The Chronicle who took a flier on me in 2010 as an unproven journalist; and finally, Eric Schwartz, who hired me over the phone when I expressed a desire to come back.

There are many more people I’ve worked with over the years and have bonded with. You all are too many to name individually, but you know who you are and you played a big role in making my career something I will look back on with fondness.

I also can’t forget the people who have been gracious in letting me into their lives and tell their stories. After all, a journalism career doesn’t happen without stories to tell, and many people have given me some awesome stories.

Life as a reporter has been great, it truly has. But as a man of faith, I’ve been given a chance to switch careers and take advantage of the opportunities for ministry — and that’s a new era in life I’ll walk into wide-eyed.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Eric Champion’s “Vertical Reality” Still Sounds Like the Future, 21 Years Later

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more musically diverse album than one I first heard when I was only 10 years old.

I was so glad to find my CD copy, scratched nearly to heck and gone but still playable, of Eric Champion’s 1994 release “Vertical Reality” buried under a pile of paperwork, seemingly neglected. So glad, in fact, that I popped it into my car’s CD player and listened to it the entire way to the coast Saturday.

To listen to the album is to take a musical journey that crosses several genres and sometimes blends several of them together in one song (electronica/trip hop; pop and alternative, etc.) in multiple instances. The journey is all woven together as a concept album by the underlying story of a person trying to find God in a society that has literally programmed him out of its recognition.

When I was 10, I remember visiting a friend whose parents had a copy of the CD, and I thought the cover art was somewhat intriguing. We popped the CD in their 24-disc changer and blared it through their living room sound system…and lo and behold, “N2 The Next Dimension” was my first exposure to electronica and was a direct influence on me later taking a like to bands such as Orbital, 808 State and others with similar sounds.

“Verticality,” as shown at the top of this post, is my favorite cut on the album, and in my view brings a heavy Prince alt-pop sound to the album and sets the tone for the rest of the CD. It mellows out for a few tracks from there, but it gets kicking once again with “Dancing in the Fire” and kind of roller-coasters into a more mellow sound and back into electronic beats, back and forth until the album ends.

Looking back, it’s quite possible that “N2 The Next Dimension,” “Dancing in the Fire” and “Believe It to See It” in all their electronic glory were probably too much to be marketed on Christian radio. I distinctly remember only hearing two songs that seemed tailor-made for adult contemporary, “Touch” and “Endless,” on the Longview and Seattle Christian radio stations at the time of their release.

It struck me upon listening to the album Saturday that it sounds just as much like the future as it did 21 years ago when it was released. That’s a difficult feat for any artist, especially one marketed as contemporary Christian. Eric Champion and Tommy Sims’ production was absolutely on point, with Sims even contributing vocals and playing bass on several songs; as a result, the collaboration gave the album a much more distinct feel than any of the other Christian music that came out at that time (and 1994 was a pretty good year for CCM, with Newsboys releasing “Going Public,” for example).

“Vertical Reality” never received much marketing, and I only remember seeing cassette copies of it at our local Christian bookstore, The Treasure House in Longview. Its greatest strength in that it was something that completely defied what Christian music was supposed to sound like was probably its greatest hindrance in gaining a foothold in the market, and that was unfortunate.

We would play the cassette in our Ford Aerostar van on the way from our house in Rainier to church in Vancouver on occasion; it definitely made the hum-drum down Interstate 5 much more tolerable. I distinctly remember asking my brother to stay silent during the trip as the first side of the cassette would play, then I’d ask my parents to fast-forward “Endless.”

As I became older and went on my own musical journeys to discover the world outside Christian music, it became apparent just how much of my musical tasted were shaped by “Vertical Reality.” I honestly think I might have found Daft Punk’s “Discovery” a bit jarring at first had it not been for “Vertical Reality.”

Here’s a little-known trivial tidbit: The 2:43 mark of “Believe It to See It” contains a sample of the intro to “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth.

For me, “Vertical Reality” is the most influential album I’ve ever listened to. It’s mostly because of the music itself, but also largely because Eric Champion himself changed his musical style so much in the late 1990s to an alternative sound, and as such the aesthetic of “Vertical Reality” was never to come back.

Wherever you are Mr. Champion, I raise a mug of coffee to you tonight and drink in your honor (and Tommy Sims as well) for the outstanding work on the VR album. Truly groundbreaking stuff that still sounds like the future at this moment.

You can’t find it on iTunes or Spotify, but click here to listen to the album on Grooveshark!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Without warning, a horrific nightmare from the Middle East

It happened sneakily, suddenly and strikingly.

Upon drifting off to sleep last night, I found myself in the Middle East, close but not exactly where I had been 10 years ago when I deployed to Iraq. This time, I wasn’t wearing military gear and had no weapons or body armor; rather, I was a civilian, visiting a casino for some reason.

I drifted among the card tables, poker room, restaurants and more, taking in the sights of unfettered opulence. No expense was spared upon this establishment; in fact, judging by the money people were spending, the hefty investment in the building looked like it would begin to turn a profit before long.

Participating in anything the casino offered did not interest me, so I walked back outside after admiring the architecture. As I began to walk further from the building, the angle opened up and it looked like a massive index finger scratching the surface of the sky.

Then it happened.

A noise so deafening that I had to plug my ears and crouch downward blasted through the air. A blinding flash and the sound of shattering glass in the distance became the telltale sign that a terrible fate had just befallen the casino from which I just ran.

I ran back toward the building along with many others who converged from every direction. Upon arrival, I could see a hole blasted in the side of the building, with shell-shocked and bloodied people exiting.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: most of the casino intact, with the noises of the slot machines and the bright flashing of the lights still dominating the environment well in the distance, while in front of me (and this is where it gets graphic)…

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Sunday, 15 March 2015

Signs of spring around my hometown abound above ground

I took a trip down to Longview and Rainier today, and it seemed the Lake Sacajawea area was somewhat insulated from the heavy rains and high winds that went wild for a bit in other parts of the region.

The flora around the region is starting to awaken and show signs that spring is definitely either right around the corner or basically here already. We’ve had a very mild winter, and it seems the plant life around here can’t wait to start showing its colors again.

Here are some shots from around Lake Sacajawea and Vandercook Park that I took in the span of about an hour.



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