Sisters dreams of becoming more than a tourist town

Sisters Downtown Sisters Downtown

Sisters initiates a bold new plan to move beyond tourism. 


Sisters, population 2,573, had a rough economic ride this year. The town's tourism-heavy sector suffered from the Milli Fire, and turnout from the Solar Eclipse was far more lackluster than expected.

“It’s a great economy; it’s just hard to sustain,” said Caprielle Foote-Lewis, Sisters managing director for Economic Development for Central Oregon, the regional economic development agency.  “It’s just like a personal portfolio. You want to diversify; you want to protect yourself.”

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To create a more stable, long-term business environment for the Central Oregon community, EDCO has launched a new economic development plan focused on attracting traded-sector companies. Among other lofty goals, EDCO hopes to attract 10 traded-sector companies, 100 jobs and $8 million in new capital investment.

“It’s a pretty aggressive plan to create and sustain a vibrant economy here,” Foote-Lewis said.

IMG 0684Downtown Sisters 

Traded sector companies sell their products or services internationally.

“In the business community here, the need for traded-sector jobs is a very loud and consistent voice,” said Jeff Johnson, chairman of the Sisters EDCO board and owner of Sisters Meat and Smokehouse. “That dollar recycles many more times in the community.” 

But the plan may not be comprehensive enough to set Sisters on a new path.

“It could have a major or minor impact,” said Brad Boyd, a former mayor of Sisters and owner of Eurosports, a local ski and bike shop. “It just depends on where the employees live. More people with well-paying jobs living in town is good for everybody.”

Boyd said he had yet to see EDCO's strategic plan. But to keep new investment in town, he said, Sisters needs more housing at all price points, especially apartments and homes in the $200,000 to $400,000 range.

IMG 0688A Forest Service property represents Sisters' biggest economic development opportunity.

Sisters is famous for its Western design aesthetic featuring saloon-style wooden storefront facades downtown and people riding on horseback. But the community's 21st-century ambitions are taking shape north of downtown in a patchwork of industrial land and business parks.

Land for new business growth is tight, Foote-Lewis said, and Sisters has lost companies due to a lack of light industrial space. Many of the empty lots north of downtown already belong to businesses that use the space for gravel pits, storage or nothing much at all.

Foote-Lewis hopes to convince some of these property owners to sell their land.

“Low inventory is one of our challenges,” she said. “It’s very hard for business to go through the development process and build from scratch.” 

The biggest economic development prospect for Sisters is a 67-acre tract of Ponderosa pine and government buildings in the heart of downtown. The property, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, could fit several large companies. Several developers are eyeing the land, which Compass Commercial has listed at $8 million. 

IMG 0712Laird Superfoods new location

Across the street, workers erect the steel skeleton of Laird Superfoods' 30,000 square feet of new warehousing and office space. A new addition to Sisters, the health foods company forecasts explosive revenue growth from $3 million to $10 million in the next year.

The company takes its name from surfer Laird Hamilton, an entrepreneur who launched his own coffee blend and is credited for inventing stand-up paddle boarding, a popular sport in Central Oregon. Hamilton and Sisters local Paul Hodge founded Laird Superfoods after meeting in Hawaii.

“We wanted to build a business that blended itself into the environment,” said Luan Pham, Laird’s chief marketing officer, explaining why the company chose to locate in Sisters. “We want to be to Sisters what Nike is to Beaverton.”

Laird hired 17 locals in factory, marketing, customer service and sales roles. The company plans for 30 to 50 new jobs in the next two years.

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Several tax incentives are available to lure new companies. Laird received a $51,000 forgiveable loan from the Sisters Economic Development Loan Fund. The Deschutes County Economic Development Loan Fund also provides forgivable loans to new businesses.

Other tax abatements inclue Enterprise Zone agreements and the City of Sisters Economic Development Loan Fund. Recently, seven Sisters companies received the Greater Redmond Enterprise Zone Incentive, which provides tax breaks equal to 1% of investment for three to five years. 

“With incentives, it’s not a cookie cutter,” Foote-Lewis said. “You have to understand the company and their potential for expansion and job growth.”

IMG 0717 1Mt. Washington outside Sisters

Foote-Lewis and Johnson didn't name companies they are targeting. EDCO’s new strategic plan focuses on tech, outdoor lifestyle companies, and light manufacturers.

“So many people know Sisters because of rodeo, quilt festival and other key events," Foote-Lewis said. "But they have no clue what’s going on in our industrial parks.”

“Anything in the outdoor space is a natural fit,” Johnson said. “I’m probably the only non-triathlete in the area.”

Tech companies can benefit from the region's quality of life, airport, fully looped high-speed fiber network, and robust electrical infrastructure, Johnson said. This sector is also a good fit for rural areas — they don’t rely on transportation infrastructure as much as industries like manufacturing. 

“They can be anywhere,” Johnson said. “Most of them have a worldwide footprint so where they put their headquarters is discretionary.”

Other industries, like heavy equipment manufacturing, don’t make as much sense.

“We’re trying to be practical about our strengths and weaknesses, saying, ‘I shoot threes, so don’t put me under the basket,’” Johnson said. “Heavy manufacturing companies are looking at transportation, and we’re not on I-5 or 97. There’s not a railhead here.”

IMG 0714Preston Thompson Guitars' Workshop

In the past two years, new traded-sector companies have added 67 jobs to Sisters, and capital investments for current projects total around $4.4 million.

Local downtown business owners cheered economic and population growth but noted Sisters will need more affordable housing to capture the full economic impact.

Of a new subdivision by the airport, Boyd said, “I’m sure they’re going to be beautiful homes, and they’re going to have beautiful views, but nobody who’s working can afford that.”

Inside Preston Thompson Guitars, a local instrument maker, sales and production manager Christine Funk said traded-sector companies, “would put us on the map a little more for manufacturing.”

Preston Thompson employs eight highly skilled workers who craft handmade guitars that sell internationally for $3,500 to $12,000. The majority commute from Bend, Funk said. They might move to Sisters, but prices here are climbing out of reach.

“Hopefully it helps with the housing prices,” she said. “People might want to move here, but the housing is equally expensive, if not more than Bend.” 

IMG 0686
Sisters supports a thriving artistic community

That could change soon. The city recently constructed 48 affordable units, with permits in place for 200 more. Officials have also mandated that 10% of new housing must be affordable, which could increase to 30% if a potential 50-acre expansion to the city’s urban growth boundary goes through.

Foote-Lewis said EDCO has also been working to address workforce development concerns. Sisters' residents interested in tech careers can take classes from Apprenti, an apprenticeship program recently launched by the Technology Association of Oregon. Grants from TAO and Oregon Bioscience have funded additional classes and trainings. 

“One of my biggest questions was, ‘can we find talent out here?’” Pham said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

The addition of OSU Cascades in Bend, Johnson said, will help attract technology companies, for whom the presence of a university figures big in their location decision.

IMG 0697Sisters Meat & Smokehouse

Ultimately, Foote-Lewis hopes Sisters will become the sort of place where students come back to raise their families, and where people settle down for good instead of passing through.

“We’re looking at the second generation,” she said. “We want opportunities for people to start and learn, then grow and provide opportunities for the next group.”

But at this point, the plan is still in the aspirational stages.

The EDCO plan states the community hopes to reach its goals by 2020. But Foote-Lewis and Johnson said it's unlikely Sisters will attract the business investment the plan calls for in three years. In 2020, EDCO will reevaluate and adjust its goals.

Local business owners are content with that strategy. Boyd says business development should come first, and housing will fall into place later.

“I think ambitious plans are great,” Boyd said. “If you’re playing baseball, you’re swinging for the fence. You might get a ground ball, but you’re swinging for a home run.” 

 

This article has been updated to reflect the following corrections: Laird received the $51K  from the City of Sister Economic Development Loan Fund, not Deschutes County. The tax breaks from the Greater Redmond Enterprise Zone initiative are equal to 1% of new investment per year, for three to five years. 

Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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