Five years ago, Elise Cruz found herself in a boardroom presenting to the mayor of Ashland, the city manager and a room of lawyers to save an 1,800 foot, historic ore dock threatened to be torn down by Canadian National Railway.
As the Ashland city planner, the 2009 OHS graduate was the only woman there, and the youngest by 40 years.
Today, that landmark she fought for is a park with the ore dock as its centerpiece. She persuaded the company to donate 40 parcels of land, the ore dock base and $1.5 million to the city of Ashland.
Experiences like that one, where she learned to press developers to make decisions based on community needs rather than profit, helped prepare her for the job she starts next month: the first planning and zoning administrator the Village of Oregon has ever had.
The Village Board announced her hiring on Tuesday, Sept. 16. She starts Monday, Oct. 28.
Although Cruz left Oregon and thought she’d never look back, today she hopes to build a life in her native community. She said she wants that small-town feel where she knows her neighbors and is able to walk to businesses and shops.
“I’m not going to a random Wisconsin community to fulfill the check box for a job,”
Cruz said. “I would love to raise my own family in a place where I’m committed to see it’s success.”
Village administrator Mike Gracz said what set Cruz apart from other candidates is her experience and hometown connection.
In her role, she will present plans and ideas to the Village Board on development projects like the new business park on the east side of Hwy. 14, new library and senior center.
While working with businesses and the board, Cruz said she’ll advocate for a well connected, walkable village with affordable housing options. The board shares that same vision, Gracz said, and plans to include an affordable housing development in the business park.
Cruz said affordable housing is a challenge she is willing to take on, especially after discovering the number of households in Oregon where individuals and families pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent, mortgages and utilities had increased from 55 to 135 from 2015-2018.
She plans to use the expertise of partners like Habitat for Humanity to work with market rate developers and create housing options for people of lower income and seniors.
Cruz said she wants Oregon to be an option for people at all stages of their lives.
“(I want) people of different age demographics, retired folks, empty-nesters, single parents to see that they can have a space in Oregon,” Cruz said.
Through village planning, Cruz hopes to persuade the board to make the village accessible, with well connected sidewalks and trails. When she was a toddler, she remembers walking through Jaycee Park and her mom pulling her to the library in a wagon.
Cruz said there are transportation barriers that keep low income and homeless populations from accessing things like new businesses and developments. Her work with the nonprofit Monticello Area Community Action Agency influenced how she makes cities more accessible through planning, she said.
For example, while Cruz was a real estate developer for the University of Virginia Foundation, a new human resources building for the foundation was being planned, but the location was secluded and was not reachable by bus line or sidewalks.
Cruz knew many of the temporary employees who frequented the building did not have cars, so she advocated for a different location.
“It sounded great; staff will have plenty of space (in the new HR building) but what about the people who use HR services, how are they going to access this site?” she remembers asking her colleagues.
In Oregon, she said, not everyone has access to a car, so buildings in the new business park and throughout the village need to be connected.
Cruz would like her role as the first planning and zoning administrator to build opportunity and growth for people of all demographics, she said.
“That is the job of a (village) planner – to look at the big picture. We are making decisions now that will impact the future of the community,” Cruz said.