A spate of new arrivals has sparked old fears about Bend’s future
Written and photographed by Dave Seminara
Before she rolled into Bend and decided to stay put for a while, Cate Cushman spent a year traveling the country in a Winnebago. The plan was to live here for a year and learn how to ski.
“That was forty years ago, and I’m still here,” she said, recounting Bend circa 1976 over a cup of green tea on exactly the kind of bluebird day that sold her on the place all those years ago.
Her husband found work at the mill. She got a job as a social worker and they started a family in what was then a humble logging town of about 15,000 people. Cushman liked to take the Saturday-morning shuttle to Nordstrom in Portland because Bend had just two department stores (JC Penney and Wetle’s) and not many other places to shop.
Cushman got her real estate license in 1986 and has spent the past three decades helping newcomers and locals find homes in Bend. She’s seen the town grow up—and has lived through cycles of boom and bust—but the appeal of Bend, the story, remains the same.
“People are moving here now for the same reasons they always have,” she said, with a hint of a Southern accent that betrays her roots in rural Georgia. “Growth in Bend has never been about jobs. It’s a beautiful place; a great place to raise a family or retire. Simple as that.”
Indeed, after a brief population dip during the Great Recession, the simple charms of Bend are proving irresistible to many. Since 2013, the Bend-Redmond metropolitan area—which encompasses all of Deschutes County—has been one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation. Some are excited to be in a thriving place where change is coming fast and furious. Others want to put the brakes on development, fearing that Bend will lose its livability and small-town charm.
Prior to the decline of the local timber industry, population growth in Bend revolved largely around the mill’s hiring needs. Bend’s recent growth, as Cushman pointed out, has had very little to do with jobs. Lifestyle nomads engaged in a Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness are fleeing the rat race and congested, expensive metro areas—chasing a higher quality of life. Others come to escape personal or professional meltdowns that played out through the dark days of the Great Recession.
Researchers estimate that by 2020, 40 percent of Americans will be “contingent workers”—freelancers, contractors, temps or self-employed. As employers allow more workers to telecommute, attractive “lifestyle destinations” such as Bend will continue to grow.
Who are these newcomers? Why did they pick Central Oregon? Will Bend’s rapid growth bring more amenities or erode the quality of life that brought so many of us here? The future of Bend lies in how this debate plays out in the years to come.
Growth By the Numbers
It isn’t hard to find Bendites gathering around office water coolers, in corner taverns and virtually on social media platforms to commiserate over the city’s growing pains. Harley Slocum, the owner of Proud American Movers, said he has no time to listen to these complaints.
“This is the land of milk and honey,” said Slocum, 34, a former cage fighter turned entrepreneur who is originally from Corvallis. “It’s a frickin’ magical place.”
Five years ago, Slocum lost his place to live when his mother went to prison and— wife and two small children in tow—decided to try his luck in Bend. They hitchhiked into town, bringing only what they could carry in backpacks, and lived at the Bethlehem Inn shelter for a spell until a financial aid check arrived. He got a degree in business from COCC, and started what has evolved into a successful moving company.
Nothing has come easy, but every week, as Slocum helps newcomers move in, he’s reminded of Bend’s appeal. “I can move people in or out of town, but these days it’s mostly one-way traffic,” he said. “It seems like everyone’s coming to Bend.”
The data supports that impression. As of July 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Bend’s population has climbed to 87,014. Since 2010, the population of Deschutes County, which includes Bend, Redmond, Sisters and La Pine, has grown by the net equivalent of about ten new residents per day, rising to 175,268 in July 2015. The county’s population has more than doubled since 1990, and Portland State University’s Population Research Center forecasts that the population will grow to 249,037 by 2035 and 357,345 by 2065.
U.S. Census Bureau data revealed that from 2010 to 2015, Deschutes was in the top 2 percent of counties for growth in the country, with an annual growth rate average of 2.3 percent. Census data showed Deschutes skyrocketing to take the seat as the seventh-fastest growing county in the United States from 2013-2014, before dipping slightly between 2014-2015, when Deschutes County ranked fifty-fifth (out of 3,143). In comparison, Crook and Jefferson counties grew just under 1 percent each in the 2014-2015 year. Voter registration data hints at sustained growth right through Spring 2016. A decade ago, Deschutes County had 82,507 registered voters: 26,437 (32%) democrats and 35,054 (43%) republicans. As of May 1, 2016, voter registration has soared to 109, 061, including 37,400 (34%) democrats and 39,517 (36%) republicans.
Latinos were the fastest-growing minority group in the county during the last decade, with their ranks increasing to 7.4 percent in 2010. Census data also revealed that between 2010 and 2014, the median age in the county grew older by 4.3 percent (from 39.7 to 41.4) while the median age nationwide increased by only 1.4 percent (from 36.9 to 37.4). The OSU Cascades expansion will begin to alter this dynamic with an influx of twenty-somethings. Families are moving to Central Oregon, too, though not at the rate one might expect for an area experiencing major population growth. In the last decade, the number of students enrolled in the Bend-La Pine Public School District has climbed just 16%.
Risa Proehl, a Research Associate at PSU’s Population Research Center, forecasts that the share of the county’s population that is 65 and over will continue to rise as Baby Boomers age and the city’s reputation as a desirable retirement destination grows.
Dreaming of a Change
Inside Bend’s artfully cluttered Iron Horse Second Hand store, shoppers can find everything from spooky $800 Polynesian statues to $12 vintage bowling pins to out-of-state license plates. The cheapest, at just $2 each, are California plates. Even at that bargain price, they don’t exactly fly off the shelves. Melissa Scott and her partner, Edwin Campos, are newcomers from San Jose, and they know why.
Last summer, after Scott landed a job as a teacher in Bend, and Campos, an immigrant from Peru, convinced his boss to let him work his IT job remotely, they moved here seeking a better quality of life. Scott said she cried tears of joy the first time she let her girls, Maya, 5, and Morgan, 9, ride their bikes to school, something she’d never allow in San Jose. But they also felt a distinct anti-California resentment.
Scott changed her license plate quickly, but Campos procrastinated, to his partner’s consternation.
“We’ve had people flip us off,” she said. “I had a guy harass me. There was one guy who looked at our car and said, ‘Oh God, not another one from California.’ I think there is a serious hatred toward Californians here. I feel like I have to apologize for being from California.”
California transplants may attract resentment in Bend, but census data reveals that the complete north-south migration picture isn’t just a one-way pipeline heading north up I-5. PSU’s Proehl said that 45 percent of newcomers to the county come from other parts of Oregon. Based on the most recent detailed census data (2009-2013), Crook, Franklin and Douglas counties in Oregon produced roughly as many net migrants to Deschutes County as the top three counties from California—Contra Costa (Bay Area), Santa Clara (San Jose) and Fresno. More Deschutes County residents moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Phoenix during this time period than arrived here from those places.
California transplants interviewed for this story cited the high cost of living and traffic congestion as their primary gripes with their former state. Locals said that a portion of the resentment some Central Oregonians harbor toward the newcomers from California is simply part of a good-natured neighboring state rivalry. Others say that there is also a harder-edged bitterness that stems from concerns that an influx of Californians will bring the same problems they are fleeing from. Nowhere is this resentment more apparent than in Bend’s tight housing market.
For the Scott family and others moving to Bend from hot real estate markets, prices here still seem like a great value. Scott and her family traded up by selling the 935-square-foot house in San Jose where they lived with their two children, one dog, two cats and six chickens, for $740,000. For less than half that price, they were able to buy a 3,300-square-foot house in Bend.
This may not seem like a bargain, but that sum still buys much more in Bend than it would in the Silicon Valley and many other places. Here you have what must feel like a dream for newcomers from congested California: large lots and no gridlock.
“I was stoked,” she said. “We’re not rich, but I can see why some might resent people like us. But who wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the chance?”
Robert Bojorcas and his wife, Gail, newcomers from Klamath Falls, weren’t fortunate enough to be cashing out of a high-priced home. They moved to Bend more than a year ago when Gail was offered the chance to manage the Bend location of a retail store, assuming they’d have no trouble finding a place to live.
At their motel room on 3rd Street—a no-frills establishment that rents by the week and requires no references—Abby, their wiener dog, eyed me warily from her perch under the blankets and barked. The couple has been living here for $320 per week ever since their arrival. They budgeted $1,300 a month for an apartment, but couldn’t find anything.
“We got Abby, plus two cats. That’s the problem,” said Bojorcas. “It’s hard to find an apartment in Bend, so landlords can afford to be picky. So many of us living here all have the same problem. We love our pets, and we won’t get rid of ‘em.”
The City of Bend has tried to address the housing shortage, creating incentives for the construction of affordable housing while spurring the likely expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) by 10 percent. But the crisis has created a reality whereby those cashing out of expensive homes in prosperous parts of the country feel flush in Bend, while others moving from less prosperous locales can be priced out.
The Bojorcas family isn’t giving up, but they’ve learned the reality of Bend’s housing crunch the hard way.
“We had no idea how hard it was to find a place to live here,” said Bojorcas, looking out at the traffic whizzing by along 3rd Street. “Now we know the real situation.”
An Increasingly Pricey View
Matt Erdle, 36, the owner of Pride Staff, a local employment agency, doesn’t buy the old adage that moving to Bend consigns one to a life of “poverty with a view.” He said that there is strong demand for certified nurses, medical assistants and drivers with a commercial driver’s license. Tourism, tech and light industrial sectors have also shown solid job growth, said Erdle. When asked about compensation, he said that in some sectors, wage growth has been strong. But he was also realistic.
“People who are determined to move to Bend generally aren’t prioritizing compensation as their number one goal,” said Erdle, who grew up in Bend, left and then returned in 2013.
Erdle said that they get calls from people around the country who want to move to Bend and wonder if they can find work here. He gives them a dose of reality, but rarely discourages them. “If they really want to make it work, they’ll find a way to make it happen,” he said.
Other members of the business community are also optimistic about economic growth. Still, census data reveals that while median household income grew nationwide from $51,144 in 2010 to $53,657 in 2014, it fell in Deschutes County from $53,071 to $49,584.
Chris Clouart, the managing director of the Bethlehem Inn, a homeless shelter in Bend, has seen the grim reality of those numbers.
“It’s very hard to be poor in Central Oregon,” said Clouart, a Massachusetts native who has lived in Bend since 1997. “There’s a tremendous amount of income inequality here.”
Clouart said that some newcomers use their last dollar on the bus ride to Bend and show up at the shelter, asking for help. The inn also gets phone calls from people as far away as Florida and New England who want to move to Bend, but have no plan, no social network and no job prospects here. “If you’re calling me to ask if you can stay here while you look for a job and get on your feet, I’m going to strongly encourage you not to come to Bend,” he said.
But Clouart also understands Bend’s allure.
“Bend puts an incredible amount of money into selling itself as this beautiful oasis,” he said. “Good schools, great parks, lovely weather, great people… Economically, [many] people aren’t making it, so a lot of them are saying, ‘If I can’t make much money, I may as well live in a nice place.”
Mike Riley, the executive director of The Environmental Center, a local nonprofit, said that last summer’s record-breaking number of tourist arrivals made many Bendites uncomfortable.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Do we really need to keep promoting ourselves this much?’” said Riley, who has lived in Bend for nearly twenty years. “Between our population growth and the record tourist season, it felt like the city was bursting at the seams. The trails and the roads were full. We were starting to see signs of people loving nature to death here.”
Looking out over the lush, well-manicured grounds of the Bend Golf & Country Club from its Cascade dining room, filled with affable newcomers on a crisp early spring morning, it isn’t hard to believe you’ve found a kind of Valhalla. Longtime members and recent additions to Bend’s Newcomer’s Club gathered for a luncheon and talk about Lewis’ and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition.
Dawn Howard (from Vacaville, California) and Jill Martin (from Arlington, Virginia) each moved to Bend about a year ago. Howard and Martin both said that Bend had a better quality of life and, critically, a lot less traffic than where they came from. At the mention of traffic, Linda Dykwel, who came to Bend from the Napa Valley in 1995, grew animated. (The Newcomer’s Club doesn’t kick out members no matter how long they’ve lived in Bend.)
“The traffic has gotten so much worse here that I just can’t stand it,” she said.
Surprised to hear a discordant note amid all the giddy praise for friendly, beautiful, It’s Always Sunny in Bend, Oregon, I asked if she liked Bend better now or when she first arrived.
“There’s more culture here now,” she said. “But I think Bend was better when I first came here. I think we need to cut off the population. I don’t know what else we can do.”
After Dykwel wandered off to mingle, a few newcomers encouraged me to disregard her complaints and focus on all the fun things their club does—luncheons, happy hours, book clubs and charity work. And indeed while most of the newcomers interviewed for this story had complaints about Bend—poor road maintenance, long winters, lack of choice in medical providers and so on—they also tended to agree that Bend’s positives outweigh the negatives.
Eric King, Bend’s City Manager, said that the city isn’t actively trying to encourage or discourage people from moving to the city. Instead, city planners are preparing for the population to rise to 115,063 by 2028, a number developed by their coordinated population forecast. UGB expansion will help, but he said that close to 70 percent of housing development will occur inside the existing UGB boundaries, and 35 percent of the new housing will be multi-family dwellings. King acknowledged that the housing crisis and growing traffic won’t be easy or cheap to solve.
“But if you want less traffic, there are huge costs to building new roads or widening roads,” he cautioned.
King said that the key to managing growth is getting citizens involved so they feel like they’re part of helping shape Bend’s future.
“There are a lot of cities around the world that are livable despite their size,” he said. “It’s not like once you get to a magic population number, the place is ruined.”
The Bend growth story is a quintessentially American tale. Growth presents challenges, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about a place filled with so many people who weren’t satisfied with their quality of life elsewhere, and came here chasing a dream.
Bendites love their city with the kind of passion and intensity that takes time to ferment. Growth can create fears of unwelcome changes. But very few are giving up on Bend and voting with their feet. Even those who have faced the most adversity still said they’re glad they came to Bend.
Harley Slocum from Proud American Movers said he still loves Bend and doesn’t mind sharing the place with anyone else who shares his passion. And Robert Bojorcas, who hopes to find a job as a maintenance man, is sure his days at the Royal Gateway Motel are numbered.
“I’m optimistic,” said Bojorcas. “It’s beautiful. The people are nice. And it sounds like there’s a lotta new housing going up, so it won’t be long now before we get out of this place.”
Mike Riley thinks that the challenges Bend faces are far from insurmountable.
Newcomers can help be part of the solution, he said—perhaps by bringing ideas of how to get people out of their cars more.
“We might have to come to grips with the fact that it takes seven-eight minutes to get to the grocery store instead of five,” he said. “These are Bend, Oregon problems. Other places have it much worse. It’s still a pretty desirable place to be.”