John Berdes, a banker who was pivotal to Astoria’s rebirth over the past two decades, died Sunday of lung cancer.
As president and CEO of Craft3 — an unconventional lending institution — Berdes was central to the redevelopment of Mill Pond, the restoration of the Liberty Theater and the renovation of the Clatsop Community College campus.
Craft3, based in Ilwaco, Washington, also helped lift Pier 39, Fort George Brewery, Bridgewater Bistro and the Astoria Armory.
Berdes, 58, died in Seattle.
His partnership with Paul Benoit, the former city manager and community development director, to help transform a brownfield at the old Astoria Plywood Cooperative into the Mill Pond housing project led to one of the city’s signature achievements.
“No bank wanted to touch a contaminated site,” Benoit recalled in a text message. He said Berdes “immediately got it. He understood what the project meant to Astoria and he intuitively understood that it had a possibility for transformational change.”
After the plywood mill closed in 1989, costing the city jobs and leaving an environmental challenge, it took several years for city planners to come up with a redevelopment strategy for the east side. The city’s Gateway plan covered the mill and the former fairgrounds and eventually led to the Astoria Aquatic Center, the Oregon State University Seafood Lab and the movie theater.
Benoit described Berdes as “amazingly intelligent and intuitive. He also had a very big heart. He helped people — neighbors and others in the region — reworking loan terms to assist a borrower in distress or, at times, providing quiet assistance from his own means to help neighbors.”
Greg Hamann, the former president of Clatsop Community College, called Berdes “a friend that I valued and loved dearly.
“And beyond — or perhaps because of — that friendship, John was soon to become a critical contributor to the complex funding amalgam that constituted the financial foundation for the reconstruction of the Clatsop Community College campus.”
Hamann said Berdes introduced him to the federal New Market Tax Credit program as a source of funding for college improvements. The college was able to build Columbia Hall and renovate other buildings with the help of Craft3.
“None of this would have happened without John’s patience, persistence, and commitment to Clatsop College and the Clatsop County community, for which I am eternally grateful,” Hamann said.
Steve Forrester, the editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian and the founding president of Liberty Restoration Inc., said Berdes was the nonprofit’s bridge to the Meyer Memorial Trust, which helped underwrite improvements to the Liberty Theater.
“John was key to helping Liberty obtain one of Meyer’s first loans at a key moment in the restoration,” Forrester said in an email.
Berdes, who lived in Seattle, earned his bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Oberlin College in Ohio. He was a community coordinator for the Capitol Hill Community Council in Seattle, the founding executive director of Capitol Hill Housing, and senior program director for the Local Initiatives Support Corp.
He joined Craft3 — then called ShoreBank — in 1995, a year after the nonprofit was created. Craft3 is a community development financial institution that provides loans and other assistance to people and businesses that may not have access to traditional financing.
The nonprofit has invested about $390 million in Oregon and Washington state, including more than $48 million in Clatsop County and Pacific County through 328 loans.
“We have lost a leader, a mentor, and a friend — but John left in his wake a strong organization and legacy,” Steve McConnell, the chairman of the Craft3 board of directors, said in a statement. “Craft3 has the impact it has because John was strong, determined, deeply thoughtful, and frequently brilliant.
“John dedicated his life to helping those around him, and the greater Craft3 and community development families will miss him terribly. We ask that you keep his family in your thoughts.”