The Old Mill District in Bend started the redevelopment trend of turning defunct mills into shopping and entertainment centers. // PHOTO COURTESY OF OLD MILL DISTRICT
The old Bright Wood lumber mill in Bend is the latest former mill to be redeveloped into something completely different. Gone are the blue-collar jobs, replaced by a fitness studio, a salon and a coffee shop. It’s the third former mill site in Bend to be reinvented in this manner, and developers and public officials are entertaining similar plans all over Oregon.
At the height of the timber industry there were 278 lumber mills in Douglas County alone. But the industry has lost more than half of its jobs over the past two decades, leaving many municipalities with large swaths of vacant land. Bend led the trend toward redevelopment with the Old Mill District, a diversified hub with more jobs now than in the old days.
But Bend is the exception. Nearby Prineville has made little headway on a similar proposal to redevelop the former Ochoco mill for shopping and restaurants. Progress has been similarly slow in Oakridge, where the former Pope and Talbot mill site sits vacant, with 64 developable acres available for industrial use at a rock-bottom $30,000 per acre.
Other mill sites have redeveloped with success, only to be upended by the economy. Mill Pond Village in Astoria replaced a shuttered mill with waterfront homes, but the area is riddled with foreclosures.
The most ambitious redevelopment on the horizon is the Croman Mill plan in Ashland, a 99-acre project calling for offices, light industrial businesses, and retail and commercial space. The projected 1,900 jobs from a 2008 report are looking a bit overly optimistic after two years of recession, but at least one growing Ashland business, medical software firm Plexis, is considering expanding there.
Still, for every Croman Mill or Bright Wood facelift, a dozen former mills sit vacant. “They’re tremendous producers of weeds,” says Oakridge city administrator Gordon Zimmerman.