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Keep Pendleton Weird

Eastern Oregon marketers refocus rural assets through an urban lens.

When Phil and Kathy Carlson decided they needed a new clientele for their ranch business in Heppner, they looked West — to the Portland cycling community. They drove to Portland to promote their new cycle-tour business to bike organizations. They donated tours to local charities. They took out a few ads. It was old-school marketing 101.

But the Carlsons also took a page from the urban-marketing playbook as they branded their tours with an Eastern Oregon flavor. They built a website for their tours that proclaims, “Explore the Old West by Bicycle.” Their Facebook page shows a seductive swath of winding country road rimmed by rugged hills. They have used the web’s myriad bike-related event calendars to promote their tours.

Meanwhile, over in Pendleton, Pat Beard has been going viral with his brainstorm to lure hipsters away from their tattoo parlors and coffee bars to the unofficial capital of Eastern Oregon. Beard, who works for Travel Pendleton, calls it “the hipster project.” Everyone loves it. The Associated Press wrote it up. Now Beard’s trending, and Pendleton, which plans to implement the marketing strategy early next year, is bracing for a hipster invasion.

Then you have a couple of Oregon foodies who took over a failing tavern between Wallowa and Enterprise. Since there isn’t much competition, they could probably serve anything they wanted.

Which is exactly what tavern operators Lynne Curry and Peter Ferré decided to do. They started dishing out eye-popping, mouth-watering fare crafted from local ingredients. Their marketing angle is on the home page: “casual farm-to-table food and drink in Eastern Oregon.” The recent, year-long John Day culinary tourism project had similar goals: to get more tourists to enjoy locally grown food and beverages, recreation and specialty lodging.

The Carlsons, Curry and Ferré, and Pat Beard are among those rare but increasingly sighted Eastern Oregon entrepreneurs who are taking a near revolutionary view of tourism out east. They are borrowing marketing tools, concepts and even jargon from Portland and adapting them in an effort to lure more tourists out east.

We’ve got more than mountains, casinos and rodeos, these modern Eastern Oregon marketers will tell you. We’ve got genuine, homemade, locally sourced food, fun and adventure. Check out our vintage stores. Have a beer with real, honest-to-John Wayne cowboys. Dig into our farm-to-table meals, discover our local microbrews, take your bike into the backcountry for a real adventure.

Ravaged by fires, with the timber and agricultural industries in decline, towns from Pendleton to John Day to Joseph, are repackaging their attractions as cool, locally grown and sustainable, all in an effort to shore up an economically challenged region with tourism dollars.

To a degree, it’s working. Tourism spending in the 11-county region was estimated at $236 million last year, making it the third-largest contributor to the economy (behind agriculture and timber). While forest fires hurt tourist trade this summer, especially in Grant County, overall tourist spending was up over the previous year, officials say.

But will all the tweeting, posting and hipster luring replace the dollars lost in the agriculture and timber sectors? “No way,” says John Day’s mayor, Ron Lundbom. “We’re putting all our eggs in the tourism basket now because everything else has been morphed into something that doesn’t employ a lot of people. It’s all we’ve got left.”

But if tourism is what he’s got to work with, Pat Beard, a self-described optimist, is fine with that. The sky’s the limit when it comes to tourism’s potential — especially if he can get all those Seattle and Portland millennials to make Pendleton their destination, he says.

Beard aims to take the city’s age-old assets and turn the town into something of a hipster theme park. “There’s nothing like Pendleton. It’s genuine,” he says. “Park your car, walk a few blocks in any direction and you’ve got great restaurants and live music. At lunchtime, you duck into a bar and there’ll be a lawyer in a suit sitting next to a cowboy in spurs. And there’s lots of handmade stuff that would attract hipsters, like custom shoes or boots. So much of what the millennials love, those unique pieces that are funky and clunky and one of a kind.”

Beard took his idea to Pendleton to the Umatilla County Commission this summer, asking for $10,000 to kick-start the project. They said OK. Before the first dime had been spent, Beard had a viral campaign on his hands. “The Hipster Project” was a concept born to be shared.

“Hipsters love social media, and you can target them through it,” he says. Social media is inexpensive, ubiquitous and instantaneous, he observes. And, boy, has the word gotten around.

“If the actual marketing program gets anywhere near the attention the plan has received, “Beard says, “we’re gonna have to contend with a hipster stampede down Main Street.”

Despite his limited budget, to be invested in logos and other branding materials, Beard has big ambitions. In addition to the Portland skinny jeans crowd, he has his eye on a bigger prize: Seattle. “We’re hoping we’ll have battling hipsters from Portland and Seattle by next summer,” he says.

Phil and Kathy Carlson are also targeting a Portland market — they’re going after the cycling community, even if it means driving a bus to Portland to pick up the customers. Which they do. They’ve run a big ranch near Heppner for years, but they don’t live off wheat or cattle. They take city people bird-hunting. Corporations love it for team building and wooing clients.

But it was a seven-month gig, and the Carlsons wanted a year-round business. They had an epiphany one day in 2009. On the way home from church, they encountered a group of people on bicycles happily puffing up a hill. “Somebody’s making money off this,” Phil thought to himself. “We can make money off this too.”

So Phil eventually hired a bicyclist consultant who had came to town in 2012 to talk about tourism on behalf of Travel Oregon. He mapped out several bike routes, drove over to Portland and started preaching to bike fanatics about the beauties of Eastern Oregon cycling: hills, valleys and back roads with no traffic, parks, rivers. And at the end of the day’s ride, the staff at TREO Ranch treat you like royalty.

It’s all about the marketing. “Bike in the Wild West!” “Take the old stage road!” “Sleep in a first-class cowboy bunkhouse!”

“Everybody out here told me I was nuts,” Phil says. “Yeah, well, I’d heard that before.” Three years later, they have a year-round business. Cyclists pay $225 per person per night — and they fill the bus with friends and business associates, so the Carlsons don’t even have to sell the tickets. “It’s that social thing,” he says.

Over on Route 82, on the way to the Wallowas, Lynne Curry and Peter Ferré are engaged in a similar enterprise. Walk into the Lostine Tavern and, lo and behold, farm-to-table fare in the middle of nowhere. Curry, a chef, self-described food journalist and author of Pure Beef, and Ferré, a Slow Food movement advocate, positioned their venture as an attempt to bring locally sourced food to rural Oregon. But in fact, they’re after much bigger fish.

“Our mission in opening was to create a business geared to the local community but that would be enticing for visitors to stop at,” Ferré says. This year about 40% of the tavern’s customers are tourists. To draw the out-of-towners, the tavern operators promoted the locally grown theme — just like Portland counterparts Farm Café, Clark Lewis and many others. Their marketing is pure Willamette Valley speak, down to the website’s listing of the ranches and farms that supply the food.

Ferré envisions the tavern’s fare to be not only locally grown and produced, but also to contribute to the local economy by bringing in tourist dollars and then reinvesting those dollars in the local makers. “Our biggest mission is to turn the tavern into an economic stimulator for our rural county,” he says. “So far, it’s worked out really well.”

Funded by a rural business development grant, the John Day culinary and agriculture tourism project included workshops for ranchers interested in getting into tourism; the initiative culminated in September with a “Taste of Oregon’s Old West,” an event held in the Cottonwood Canyon state park that featured 44 vendors selling honey and wheat snacks, natural beef, microbrews, wine and fruit.

The culinary tourism project will expand into other counties this year; similar marketing efforts will likely follow. But what is the economic impact of these new initiatives and businesses — of Carlsons’ bike treks and Beard’s hipster project? Will they help revive rural Oregon or just stem the bleeding?

Tourism is important to the region, and the marketing tactics used by Beard and the Lostine Tavern are having a positive effect, says Alice Trindle, who owns a horsemanship business in Haines and serves as executive director of the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of return visitors to the region,”

Trindle says. “But golly, I don’t think it will ever replace those other [economic] contributors. You have to understand, though, that out here, even a few more customers a day at a store or a restaurant make a significant impact.”

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Will all the tweeting, posting and hipster luring replace the dollars lost in the agriculture and timber sectors?

The Carlsons employ 15 people during the peak of hunting season; the tavern supports a staff and now feeds some money back into the community. Despite the buzz, Beard’s hipster initiative has yet to be tested. Indeed, the irony of Beard’s $10,000 campaign is that just a few miles to the east of his office sits the Wild Horse Casino. Owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, the casino, an old-school tourism business, has millions of dollars to spend on advertising and regularly draws crowds from Seattle, Portland and Boise to its gaming parlors.

“Being from the private side, we have a different perspective on how to attract tourists,” says the tribe’s executive director, David Tovey. Government agencies are constrained in the initiatives they pursue, he says. “Pat’s got a challenge — I admire what he’s done. He wants to work with us to build the [tourism] product. We like that.”

Retired retailer Sharon Morgan says the new tourist dollars can’t possibly make up for the decline of natural resource-based industries that sustained the east for decades.

Morgan speaks from firsthand experience. In August the Spray General Store, in Spray (population 154), closed after 120 years in business. She and her husband had operated it for decades but finally could no longer eke out a living from the dwindling mix of locals and occasional tourists and hunters who stopped to stock up.

“You just can’t develop a business and make a living anymore. These little towns will all become ghost towns,” she says.

Ghost towns that, perhaps, can be marketed to urban denizens as authentic relics of a dying Wild West.

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