Pendleton mines the past to build a future

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Friday, December 01, 2006
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There is business to be done in Pendleton, and a new class of entrepreneurs — such as the pair that reopened the Hamley & Co. western wear store — and community leaders are out to build a historic infrastructure with modern amenities to fire up profits.

PENDLETON — The saying goes you’re either lucky or good — but some are a little of both. The City of Pendleton has been calculating in its approach to economic development, but it’s also been the lucky beneficiary of several converging forces that have accelerated local efforts.

The reopening of a downtown Pendleton landmark, the impact of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation investments, the upcoming Centennial celebrations of Pendleton Woolen Mills (2009) and the Pendleton Round-Up (2010), are all infusing new energy into this old Oregon Trail town. “It’s like someone lit a fuse,” says Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk.

In 2005, Walla Walla businessmen Parley Pearce and Blair Woodfield invested $2.5 million to renovate and reopen Hamley & Co., the well-known saddle and leather store, and restore it to national prominence. Pendleton leaders had been actively planning for community development, but Hamley’s was the catalyst.

Pearce and Woodfield did their arithmetic, analyzed the market and felt investment in Pendleton was justified. “Pendleton is no different than any other town of 17,000 people,” says Pearce. “There is a certain amount of business to be done as long as the business people are prepared. If they are not, the shoppers will just go elsewhere. The consumers in town, plus all the surrounding area — La Grande, Walla Walla and beyond — will come here to do business if there is something here they want.”  Pearce estimates about 25% to 30% of Hamley’s day-to-day business comes directly from Pendleton, the rest from around the region.

But in the pre-Hamley’s days of 2003, the city passed an urban renewal plan and, with the aim of capitalizing on its historic downtown, formed the Façade Committee to assist merchants with funding facelifts to existing buildings. Headed by Jill Thorne, the committee has made grants of more than $400,000 with $1 million in tax increment funds available.

“We are helping merchants renovate building facades and explore ideas of how to use the second and third floors of existing buildings,” Houk says. Current plans lean toward a frontier look in the downtown. The new East Oregonian newspaper building with its red brick facade fits into the old-town look, as does Hamley’s. More Main Street buildings are following this lead. City leaders are also planning to revitalize the area near the Round-Up grounds, now home to many run-down and unoccupied buildings.

In addition to fitting in with Pendleton’s new (or rather, old) look, Hamley’s has become a tourist attraction. People come by the busload after a visit to Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and Wildhorse Casino to see the store and are entertained cowboy-style at the Slickfork Saloon on Hamley’s third floor. Merchants, restaurateurs and motel owners are all taking notice.

But while the spiffed up downtown looks good, its jobs are mostly in the service and retail sectors. Officials are also going after higher-paying employers and they have an ally in the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), five miles east of town. Second only to the state in providing employment in the county, the CTUIR works on development, continuing education, health issues and housing. In October, the tribe announced the formation of Cayuse Technologies, a tech consulting business that will employ up to 250 people. Cayuse is owned by the Confederated Tribes and operated through a five-year management agreement with Accenture, the management consulting and technology services giant. 

Don Sampson, executive director of the Confederated Tribes, says it’s just the beginning. “We are really looking at commercial development. That is going to be our gateway into the community.” 

Originally an agriculturally based economy, Pendleton is becoming a hub for several companies including Community Bank’s data processing center. Pendleton is marketing its airport — the only regional airport in Eastern Oregon — and access to I-84 to new employers. Several new businesses with as yet unsigned contracts are expected to set up shop in 2007, according to Larry Dalrymple, Pendleton’s economic development director.

But Pendleton is not without challenges in its effort to remake itself as a commercial success. Several agencies are working on a new $8 million road by the airport to provide access to developments there. And the City of Pendleton is busily working with the state to expand its urban boundaries to provide larger (400-acre parcels) of flat property for development. This is critical to expansion. While some developable land is available around town, officials say it’s not as much they need for anticipated growth of family-wage employers.

In the meantime, service and retail jobs continue to come to town. D&B Supply, a general merchandise retailer, will open in an old K-Mart building next spring, bringing 60 jobs. Around the same time, Hamley’s will add a five-star steak house that will employ another 60. The Wildhorse Casino is constructing a top-level restaurant with live entertainment on Saturday nights, adding about 100 new jobs.

For Hamley’s Blair Woodfield, Pendleton’s vibe as an Old West town makes for good business. “You just can’t buy this kind of history,” he says.

And for Sampson, a revitalized downtown means something else entirely: “I just can’t wait until the doors are open at Hamley’s and I can buy a good steak.”

— Ann Terry Hill


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