For many residents, the Ashland Recycling Center is more than a series of bins where they can drop off paper and plastic.
It's a community gathering place to trade clothes, pick up food or clothing if they're in need, exchange bubble wrap, recycle materials that aren't allowed curbside and even adopt a new pet.
"It's a special gathering place that doesn't involve money," said a young woman who picked through the free clothing and shoe booth Wednesday.
But the future of the center on Water Street is uncertain, as a city task force studies ways to shore up the money-losing Recology Ashland Sanitary Service. An option could be closing the recycling center, which collects just 6 percent of the town's recyclables but lost $119,953 last fiscal year, costing each garbage customer $1.77 a month.
The Ashland City Council approved an 11 percent hike in garbage rates this year and another 8 percent increase that starts in January. The council said the increases were necessary to bring Recology's budget out of the red and into an industry-standard profit of 4 percent to 6 percent.
Recology spends $141,098 to run the recycling center but earns revenue of $21,145, leading to the $119,953 loss, according to a Washington-based consultant the city hired to examine Recology's finances and operations.
The rate increase that starts in January will cost the average residential customer an extra $1.43. Councilor Russ Silbiger, who voted against the increase, noted that eliminating the recycling center would make the latest rate increase unnecessary.
The center was launched in 1990 to allow people to drop off recyclables, long before convenient curbside pickup was added in 2006. (Corrections: See below)
Despite the grim math for the center, Rogue Valley residents using it this week said closing it would be a mistake.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," said Ashland resident Lee Milholland as he recycled large, unwieldy sheets of flattened cardboard boxes. He said he sometimes has too many recyclables at home and stores up loads to drop off at the center.
Ashland resident Kerry Hofsess said people can drop items off at the center that can't be picked up curbside, such as plastic bags, and he worries more items would end up in the landfill if the center were to close.
"I've got cloth bags and I use them, but some things just come in plastic bags," he said.
Risa Buck, zero waste specialist for Recology, noted the center takes many other items not allowed curbside, including textiles, shoes, ink-jet cartridges, toners, cell phones and fluorescent light bulbs and tubes.
It's also a donation site for the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, meaning hungry people can pick up food there. It has an area where recyclers can exchange Styrofoam peanut and bubble wrap and dispose of shredded paper. Also on site are demonstration compost containers, outdoor classroom space beneath a gazebo and a place to adopt pets.
Grace Bevan, a stylishly dressed young woman who used to live in Ashland but now lives in Phoenix, was looking through items at the clothing drop-off booth Wednesday.
"This has been a real blessing in my life because I used to not be so fortunate," said Bevan.
She and her mom would often look for clothes at the recycling center when she was a girl, and her mom still picks up clothing to give to others, Bevan said.
Tim Church, who has been an attendant since the center opened, said use has grown from about 100 vehicles daily to 250 to 300 vehicles.
International delegations have toured the center, and Church has been interviewed by Waste Age Magazine.
"This place is quite a feather in Ashland's cap," he said.
The center is open every day except Sunday and is staffed by four part-time attendants, including Church. City staff, councilors and Recology workers have agreed that not staffing the center might save money, but it would lead to people dumping trash there.
Talent resident Lynda Lebombard said she doesn't know where she'd take her cans and bottles if the center were to close. She comes to Ashland regularly to drop off recyclables, buy groceries and visit her doctor and hairstylist.
Councilors have wondered how many out-of-towners like Lebombard use the recycling center. Buck said she doubts that charging non-residents to pay a fee would work without adding more attendants — which would boost costs.
Brad Woodring is among the Ashland residents who never use the center to get rid of recyclables.
"The only time I come here is when I drop off dog food," said Woodring, who was at the center this week with his dog Riley.
Woodring said he adopted Riley from the center eight years ago after Church invited him to take the dog on a trial run to the Ashland Dog Park.
"He was right in here," Woodring said, motioning to the center's pet kennel. "It was love at first sight."
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The Ashland Recycling Center's opening date and curbside recycling date starts have been corrected in this version.