BY LINDA BAKER
I flew into Pendleton this week (SeaPort Airlines, free Voodoo donuts), where a few city and Chamber of Commerce staffers gave me the lay of the land.
On the plus side, high wheat prices continue to boost the local economic base. In a region where the major employers are linked to agriculture, “as wheat prices go, so does Pendleton’s economy,” says Robb Corbett, Pendleton’s new city manager.
Cutting a swath through that wheat is a new road connecting I-84 to an industrial park designed to attract distribution centers, a truck stop or some type of manufacturing plant. Completed two years ago, the $6.9 million connector has yet to lure any new businesses, prompting detractors to describe the project as “the road to nowhere." Lack of infrastructure, specifically, water and sewer, may be one reason employers have yet to locate in the industrial park.
Despite the challenges, city planner Evan MacKenzie said the city “showed a lot of initiative” in building the road, which allows big trucks to circumvent the prohibitively steep hill that previously provided the only access to the site.
In a city as a small as Pendleton (population 16,000), MacKenzie is recognized as one of the town’s few bike commuters: “you see a cyclist go by and say ‘there’s Evan,’” observed Gail Nelson, the new executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. A member of the local bike club, Pendleton on Wheels, MacKenzie participates in or helps organize several high profile recreational rides that help attract tourists, including the Century Ride of the Centuries, featuring tours of 100-year old farms, and the Echo Red 2 Red cycle race showcasing Eastern Oregon desert terrain.
Most of the development activity in town centers around St. Anthony’s Hospital, which is relocating to the south side of town, on a site that will enable future expansion. According to MacKenzie, the hospital is also considering a new medical office building, while Interpath Labs is also building an adjacent facility. “We’re seeing medical growth; whether residential and retail will follow, we don’t know.”
Lack of affordable housing is a major constraint to growth, Corbett says. Before the recession, the city’s housing stock revolved around high end second homes or very low rent housing. To help attract new industry, the city is now in urgent need of mid range workforce housing, says Corbett, noting that the topology of the region--steep hills and valleys-- makes construction challenging, as does a tight lending environment. The city is currently trying to pull together public and private financing to build such housing on a parcel of publicly-owned land designated as high density residential.
Although outsourcing of local industrial jobs has depressed wages, the city aims to build on its agricultural base by creating more value-added food products, Nelson said. For example, noted mustard manufacturer Barhyte Specialty Foods seeks to source more ingredients locally; growing horseradish is one idea on the horizon.
The new $45 million upgrade of the Umatilla tribes' Wildhorse Resort and Casino has also "positively impacted our community," says Corbett. Another bright spot is downtown Pendleton, which has maintained its vibrancy and historic character in part because of an urban renewal zone that has allowed local business owners to invest in storefront improvements and other landscaping and design features.
The urban core also benefits from the presence of Hamley’s food and craft empire, featuring world-renowned saddle and leather craftsmanship--and perhaps an equally renowned steakhouse. Despite the 21 vacant storefronts, downtown feels dense and lively, and I bore witness to MacKenzie’s claim that there are often more cars parked downtown after 5 p.m. than during the day.
Like many rural Oregon communities, Pendleton suffers from a shrinking population and limited employment opportunities. But the city is also better positioned than most to flourish in the 21st century. “We have a long history and tradition in the community; it’s very safe and is ranked one of the country's best places to raise a family," says Corbett. "We just need to figure out how to make that happen for more of them.”
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.