ONTARIO – Shawna Peterson likes a challenge.
Which is probably a good thing as she embarks on a new path as the executive director of the Treasure Valley Reload Project.
The Malheur County Development Corp., the public company overseeing the rail project, chose Peterson for the key post at its March 9 meeting. With approval by the Malheur County Court, she signed a contract with the county last week and stepped into the role formerly held by Heppner legislator Greg Smith. Smith quit his Malheur County work with little notice in February.
Peterson, like Smith, will work as an independent contractor at a proposed monthly fee of $8,725.
The rail project, over budget and plagued by delays, has been mired in controversy for nearly five years. While Peterson’s appointment may not symbolize the cavalry coming to the rescue, it is a significant development on a project that consumed millions in public dollars and remains stalled because of a lack of funds.
“I like a challenge. I am stubborn. I do believe hard work pays off. I feel a strong sense of obligation to give back and make things better,” said Peterson.
Peterson said she wants “to leave anything I touch better.”
The 47-year-old Ontario attorney isn’t a newcomer to overseeing major economic development projects. She previously held the position of chair of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board. The board, created in 2017, focuses on generating economic development in Malheur County along the Idaho border.
Peterson resigned from the chair position to become the executive director of the border board in 2019.
A Weiser native, Peterson said she has no illusions regarding the challenges she will face as executive director of the reload center.
“It is a big project and with a lot of history since it’s been in the works for five years. It is also time sensitive,” said Peterson.
The time constraints revolve around the aim by project officials to have the center finished by this fall. That goal, though, is in limbo.
That’s because project costs, once estimated to be $26 million, will most likely exceed $40 million and the county needs more cash to finish.
The Malheur County Court recently asked the Oregon Legislature for $8.5 million to wrap up the project.
When, and from where, that money will come from is still not settled and may not be until June.
Peterson, who owns her own law firm, S. Peterson Law LLC, said she understands the complexity of the project.
“The biggest challenge will be getting up to speed and dealing with it while the Legislature is still in session,” said Peterson.
Peterson said, though, she is excited to get to work on the project.
“I hope to bring a local perspective. I am diligent. I want to see this done but I want to see it done right,” said Peterson.
Petersons said when she began college at Gonzaga University she majored in engineering.
She then became interested in environmental law.
“I decided to go to law school, then found my niche after law school in farm and ranch and estate planning work,” said Peterson.
Peterson received her law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland in 2002.
Peterson said her focus as executive director will be on “being accountable to the citizens and taxpayers.”
“Also handling communications, whether locally or with the Legislature and bringing benefit to Malheur County,” said Peterson.
Peterson’s advocacy work, as a member of the border board and as its executive director, has paid off for the county. She played a pivotal role in a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2021 to open up inferior local farmland to modest development.
“I sometimes describe it as I am an accidental lobbyist. After I was appointed by the governor as chair of the border board, I started to get more involved in higher level advocacy,” she said.
Peterson said her job allows her to help people.
She is the mother of three; her husband, Ben, is a dentist and owner of High Desert Dental in Ontario.
Peterson said she usually rolls into work at 8 a.m. armed with a Diet Coke and a list of items to tackle for the day.
“But my days never go as planned. Something will come up,” she said.
Peterson said she believes one of her best assets is her affection for Malheur County.
“I love the way of life here. We are not fighting traffic or vying for status based on what country club we belong to. We are just good, hard-working people,” said Peterson.
She’s learned a lot, she said, about people during her law career.
“People are complicated. But we have more in common than differences and I believe we can do great things,” said Peterson.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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