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By Tina Lassen
No one understands the pull of a river better than a fly-fisherman: how it challenges you to mend your line just so. How it tugs at your soul a little bit too, blurring time and connecting you to the outdoors like nothing else can.
The Williamson River, a spring-fed stream arcing through mountains and marshes north of Klamath Falls, is the one that captivated Jon Bauer. A former resident of Monterey Bay, in California, Bauer originally came to fish the river but later began exploring the area with his family — Crater Lake, the Umpqua River, plays in Ashland. “Then we did the California thing and put in an offer on a piece of property,” he jokes.
What started as a vacation getaway in 2000 became home in 2004, when Bauer moved north with his wife, his two daughters and his burgeoning business, Bauer Fly Reels. Now based in Ashland, Bauer Fly Reels builds precision fly-fishing reels out of its own building, employs four and supports an array of machine shops and other vendors from the Rogue Valley to the Willamette Valley. “It’s about 35 living-wage jobs, not counting all the retailers who sell our products,” he says. “And those are 35 jobs that used to be in California.”
According to a study commissioned by Travel Oregon in 2010, a full 2.5% of Oregon visitors said they’d consider expanding, opening or relocating a business to Oregon. With more than 25 million visitors to the state in 2012, that single statistic adds up and multiplies out to hundreds of thousands of potential business leads.
Bauer Fly Reels, for example, provides work for machine shops like Varney Manufacturing in Medford, which manufactures Bauer’s stainless-steel and aerospace-aluminum components. Then there are Bauer’s employees, who hand build, service and sell the company’s high-end reels.
A former auto-racing champion, Bauer brought his keen knowledge of mechanical design, experience in precision manufacturing and a fresh perspective to the conventional field of fly-fishing. In 1995 the fledgling company introduced a reel with a large arbor and a unique clutch system, which provides smoother, more consistent casts and retrievals.
“We definitely shook things up,” remarks Bauer. “It upped the game, changed the whole industry and set us off on a growth curve that was staggering.”
What didn’t change, though, was the challenge of running a business in California. “The high cost of living was a huge issue for our employees,” Bauer explains. “When you operate with a small staff, they need to be extra sharp and have multiple skills. Hiring good people is critical for us. And the kind of people attracted to this industry want an outdoor lifestyle and a nice place to live. We want them to be able to have a real life at the end of the day.”
Bauer’s vacation on the Williamson started him looking north across the state line and the ability to hire and retain good employees is what kept him doing so. There were other attractions too, namely the appealing community of Ashland and its excellent schools. “Our younger daughter was interested in the arts, and Ashland High School was a very good fit,” Bauer says. “That really turned out to be a home run.” Both of Bauer’s daughters now reside in Portland.
Businesses relocating to Oregon cite other factors, such as a good transportation network and lower insurance and workers’ comp premiums. Bauer adds another: the state’s exacting environmental regulations.
“Oregon attracts companies to the state because of its environment — and its care for the environment,” he stresses. “Healthy, flowing waterways are a big reason why we came here. A clean environment produces jobs. It’s all connected.”
And sometimes, it all begins with a visitor on the banks of a burbling Oregon trout stream.
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