The Friends of Witham Oaks are hoping a challenge grant from an anonymous benefactor will jump-start their current fundraising push.

So far the group has raised about $185,000 toward the purchase of 95 wooded acres off Northwest Harrison Boulevard, which it hopes to preserve as open space. The asking price on the property is $3 million.

But in an e-mail to supporters on Sunday, Vice President Louise Marquering announced the Friends had received a pledge from an unnamed donor to contribute $50,000 if the group can match that amount by March 31.

The property, once slated for a 221-home subdivision, was foreclosed by U.S. Bank in 2009 after financially troubled developer Legend Homes went into bankruptcy protection. Legend has since emerged from reorganization but renounced its claims to the Witham Oaks property.

After an initial burst of fundraising in 2009, the Friends of Witham Oaks went quiet when the property reverted to the lender. But they began ramping back up in November when U.S. Bank listed the property for sale.

"When we were not certain what the bank was doing, people were a little hesitant to donate," Marquering said.

Now she's hoping the anonymous offer of $50,000 in matching funds will prompt people to break out their checkbooks once again.

"It's generating lots of attention," she said.

Although the Friends have limited funds at the moment, they have hopes of raising enough to make a serious offer on the property. Last week, through a real estate agent, the group sent the bank's representative a letter of intent to purchase the property in hopes of negotiating an option.

If the group can put together enough cash for a substantial down payment, Marquering hopes the bank will agree to accept a balloon payment for the rest in, say, five years' time.

"Once we have a contract with the bank, we could get foundation grants," Marquering said. "That's what we're hoping for."

The matter has taken on greater urgency in recent weeks, Marquering said, as reports have surfaced that a housing developer is interested in buying at least part of the property.

Gene Buccola, the Corvallis real estate broker representing the bank, said he could not confirm whether there had been any other offers on the property.

The Friends of Witham Oaks are accepting donations through their website, www.withamoaks.org, and their mailing address, 3800 N.W. Harrison Blvd., Corvallis, OR 97330-6516.

Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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