By Ben Jacklet
Shelly Hummel has been selling homes in Bend for more than 20 years, and she’s got the attitude to match: upbeat, confident, a dog-lover who took up skiing at age 4. She labors to keep things positive, but every so often her frustration slips free: “The banks just kept giving the builders money, without even looking at plans or doing drive-bys of the places they were selling. The market just exploded with new construction. Boom! Selling stuff off of floor plans. Unfortunately, selling them to people who had no business buying them. It was a perfect storm of stupidity.”
We are touring the wreckage of that storm in Hummel’s Cadillac Escalade, driving down Brookswood Boulevard into a former pine forest that now hosts a swath of housing developments with names like Copper Canyon and Quail Pine. “This was the boundary line until 2003,” says Hummel. “These roads dead-ended. That home sold for $350,000. Now it’s on the market for $175,000. Short sale.”
Hummel never intended to become a “certified distressed property expert” specializing in selling homes for less than is owed on their mortgages. But in Bend, she didn’t have much of a choice. No city in Oregon — or arguably, the nation — experienced a more dramatic reversal of fortunes during the Great Recession than Bend, the economic engine for Central Oregon. Home values got cut in half. Unemployment soared to over 16%. A once-promising aviation sector imploded. So did an overheated market for destination resorts. Brokers, builders and speculators once flush with cash woke up underwater and flailing. Banks renowned for their no-document, easy-money loans stopped lending. Layoffs led to notices of default; foreclosure brought bankruptcy.
How does a community recover from economic meltdown? That is the central question I am trying to answer about Bend. I start my inquiry at the offices of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), an organization formed to diversify the economy after the last major recession in the region, in the 1980s. My meeting is with executive director Roger Lee, marketing manager Ruth Lindley and business development manager Eric Strobel. I turn on my digital recorder and say, “I’d like to hear your take on how the recession impacted Bend’s economy.”
Silence. I read their expressions: Not this again.
It takes some time, but over the course of the interview they paint a sharp portrait of what went wrong and why. A local housing boom “fueled by speculation, not solid economics,” in Lee’s words, crashed. The local crash coincided with a national housing slump that devastated Bend’s major traded sector of building supplies. The final blow was the collapse of the local general aviation industry. Cessna shut down its local plant in April 2009. Epic Aircraft, the other major employer at the airport, went bankrupt.
“Aviation was our diversification away from construction and wood products,” says Strobel. “We had thousands of employees out at Bend Airport. It was the largest aviation cluster in the state… It just completely fell apart in six months.”