From transplant to leader

Like so many newcomers to Ashland, John and Jane Stromberg moved here rather suddenly, falling in love with the town and finding a home they just couldn't resist.

The house they bought eight years ago on a ridge overlooking both the town and the watershed once belonged to Jerry Turner, a former artistic director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Turner and his wife, Mary, frequently hosted play readings and ACLU meetings in the house, and Mayor-elect Stromberg still envisions the home as a community gathering place, one he used to launch his campaign and will continue to work from as the city's leader.

Stromberg captured 39 percent of the Nov. 4 vote in a field of seven candidates, with the next closest challenger, George Kramer, 12 points behind. He will lead a town of recent transplants like himself and those who have called Ashland home since childhood toward his vision of a sustainable city in the midst of growing budget concerns and environmental challenges.

Stromberg has a road map of sorts spread across one end of his dining room table — a giant sheet of graph paper taking up a third of the space — with his goals, strategies and promises he made during the election staring back at him.

"I can assure you that the people I made promises to are going to remind me," he said.

Since the election, he has spent hours a day, up to seven days a week, developing the list, fielding phone calls from concerned constituents and meeting with council members, former mayors and city staff. He said he also wants to spend plenty of time out and about with the people of Ashland.

"I want to be out in the community regularly and say, 'What do you want? I'm not going to promise anything, but let's kick it around,'" he said.

Behind the map

While his list of goals and promises is at the center of his house, it is surrounded by his other passions: his poodle Marco, books on science and technology and the organic garden out back.

Marco is the fifth standard poodle Stromberg has owned and the first he has taught to maneuver through agility courses, something he admitted he once found "silly," until discovering how challenging it can be.

He has been astonished with the intelligence of poodles, recalling one former pet who learned to pick pears on command, balancing on his hind legs to lift the fruit delicately with his nose, Stromberg said.

"Having animals is one way you keep from getting old too fast," Stromberg, who is 68, said. "You have to respond to them and take care of them; you can't just get caught up in your favorite things."

One of Stromberg's other favorite things is reading about science and technology, a love that began when he was young. He purchased his first car, a Packard, when he was just 13, and he earned his bachelor's degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology before switching to statistics and business administration for his graduate degrees. His two daughters also inherited a bent toward technology, and both work in the dot-com world in Southern California.

Despite the fact that his first dream was about a car, he thinks about those modern marvels differently now, considering the energy used and pollution caused for a simple trip to the gym.

"Now when I get in my car, 3,600 pounds of steel and plastics and electronic wiring, and I'm just going to the gym and work out, I'm spewing all these chemicals out," he said.

The solution lies in a better-designed community, easily accessible to walkers and bikers, and planning for alternate transportation like a shuttle from retirement communities to popular spots around town, he said.

Stromberg's also dreaming up ways to make those ideas a reality, such as increasing the market penetration of the Ashland Fiber Network from 40 to 70 percent, which would net another $200,000 a year for the city by his calculations.

Localized agriculture is another of his goals, and his own organic garden behind his house has convinced him community gardening is a step up in quality of life.

He grows Romano pole beans, a wide, flat Italian bean that reflects his Tuscan heritage, along with zucchini, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, chard, raspberries and strawberries.

"It tastes so different," he said. "It feels different to eat it. That's an enlivening experience. My standard of living didn't go down; it went up."

Although he and Jane are not the kind of gardeners others come to for advice, he said, they have had fun swapping vegetables with their neighbors and are considering becoming more specialized next year.

"Sustainability is not going back to some primitive existence; it's going to a different kind of existence of a better quality," he said.

Looking ahead

For now, these hobbies have taken a back seat to local politics. His involvement began with city discussions on the budget process and community policing, and in 2005 he was appointed to the planning commission, where he got frustrated with "how hard it was to get things to happen," he said.

His background in organizational consulting drove him further and further into politics, as he kept noticing practices that could use a little consultation.

"I spent all these years working with organizations as a consultant so they work better together," he said. "When I started getting involved in local government, my instinct was always, 'Well, gosh, we can do this better.'"

He lost a bid for City Council in 2006, and when his fellow commissioners chose him to be the planning chair, he realized that being mayor was the "pivotal position" for change, he said.

He still lists his priorities as protecting the Shakespeare-based economy and the water supply, managing fire risks and moving toward sustainability. And with a slumping economy, managing city spending will become even more important and more difficult, he said.

Living in a town as talented as Ashland, however, has made the prospect of leading in a time of uncertainty much less threatening, he said.

"Whenever you get into something that has real potential, you have moments where you feel way in over your head and you don't know what you're going to do," he said. "You sometimes feel like you made a colossal mistake. Then somebody comes along and does something. They create a miracle. That's how I work. I make a lot of space for people to contribute and do things ... a lot of times people have better ideas than I do. That's really very exciting. That's why communities are so terrific."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or

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