On A Bender

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From the time it was a small town full of Norwegian and Swedish loggers until today, skiing has always been an integral part of the way of life here," says third-generation Bend resident, former ski coach and jewelry artisan Terry Foley. Skiing was the constant during turbulent times in the Eighties, as Bend transformed itself from a timber-based economy to one based on tourism, with new residents arriving weekly in search of that ever-elusive "quality of life."

Today Bend is the hub city in Deschutes County, Oregon's fastest growing county. Located dead center of the state on the dry side of the Cascades, Bend enjoys a relatively mild year-round climate. Three hundred days of sunshine a year is the stated tourism line. In the middle of winter, it's possible to ski Mt. Bachelor (22 miles away) and hike a high-desert trail near town on the same day.

Oregon's longest river, the Deschutes, runs through the heart of Bend. Pioneers crossing the Deschutes called this place Farewell Bend-the last hospitable place they'd see before fording the river and beginning the arduous trip west over the Cascades. The U.S. Postal Service arbitrarily dropped the "Farewell" part in 1886 when the town applied for a post office. Formal incorporation occurred nine years later. And so from a rough and tumble town of dirt streets lined with brothels and bars grew a respectable small town. As the town grew, so did its reputation for fair weather and loads of recreation opportunities. Tourism became an economic force just as the timber industry started to decline, but it didn't grow fast enough, and by the early Eighties, Bend's economy was dead.

"Business? What business?" says current Deschutes County Commissioner Tom De Wolf of that period. He and his partners opened a combination restaurant and movie theater in 1981. "We used to require our employees to park right in front of the entrance so it would look like we had customers. There was a 34 percent vacancy rate in downtown Bend. It was a struggle."

Then the California housing market went nuts. Bungalows that could be had for almost nothing in the Sixties and Seventies suddenly fetched a king's ransom. Golden State escapees sold out and brought their money north, many landing in Bend. The town's real-estate boom started in 1986, and it hasn't stopped.

"The reason people continue to come here," says Bill Smith, who worked in the timber industry for years before becoming a developer, "is that it's a comfortable place to be. Bend will always be a better place than the place people came from." Smith's just-opened Old Mill District, south of downtown, is indicative of the changes. On land once occupied by timber mills, he's created a stunning mixed-use area of office buildings, residences and high-end retail shops along the banks of the Deschutes River.

A short float downriver from the Old Mill District, downtown Bend and its close-in neighborhoods are small-town America at its best. West of the core area, the older neighborhoods give way to new developments, many done in the neo-traditional style. And yes, Bend also bears the cross of those ubiquitous trophy homes. The area east of Bend's core has a more Southern California feel-sprawling tract developments, mega-shopping malls and plenty of fast-food restaurants.

With the increase in population have come the usual growth pains of traffic congestion, increased crime and overcrowded schools. But growth has also brought many welcome changes. Once a town with little to do after hours and even less culture, Bend now boasts a lively arts scene, diverse restaurants, hip bars and plenty of entertainment options. But the best local entertainment is still the least expensive: the outdoors. Eighty percent of the land around Bend and in Deschutes County is publicly owned (Forest Service and BLM). Having so much open space is, as Bill Smith notes, "a huge attraction to people."

At the outset of the real-estate boom, most local pundits predicted aarge influx of retired people. The retirees did come, but so did far more 18- to 23-year-olds and young families. The young singles answered the clarion call of "cheap housing and awesome snow to ride." Word that "Bend rocks" spread nationwide in the snowboard community.

"When I was 22, I read that Bend got 9 inches of rain and 300 days of sunshine annually and that it had this great mountain to snowboard," recalls Washington state native Jason Wells, now 27.

"I told my parents that I was moving here to attend Central Oregon Community College, not to snowboard." A year after arriving, Wells took up kayaking. He's now a part-time student and a partner in a paddlesports store. One of Well's roommates, 28-year-old Connecticut native and University of Utah graduate Reid Rogers, heard there were plenty of recreation management job opportunities in Bend.

Apparently, there weren't enough, as he now operates roadside espresso coffee stands. Another roommate, 25-year-old Bill Newton, moved from Asheville, N.C., last fall, "for the sunshine, the skiing and the rivers." The fourth roommate, Lana Young, 29, came to snowboard in 1997 and stayed. She's a professional photographer who specializes in outdoor sports.

When developer John Gilbert, 35, and his partner, Dr. Brenda Hedges, 37, decided to move west from New York and Philadelphia in 1996, they looked for a mountain town with skiing that "was close to a corridor of intellectual centers." They settled on the I-5 corridor that runs from San Francisco to Vancouver, B.C., and took vacations to check out various mountain communities. "Bend won out because of its climate," Gilbert says.

Young and old, people continue to come. When I moved here in 1978, the population was just shy of 13,000. Today it's just over 52,000, and growth is a charged issue. City Councilman John Shubert has lived in Bend for 14 years. As someone who has seen the town grow, he's an ardent slow-growth advocate. "I believe we would be better able to preserve our quality of life if we moved more slowly," Shubert says. "It's tiresome to feel like we're living in a construction zone with overcrowded schools, clogged streets and volatile tempers at every turn."

Former Bend Mayor Alan Bruckner wanted to end funding for tourism promotion while he was a member of the City Council from 1989 to 1992, because he felt it would bring growth. Now he's changed his tune: "Growth has meant improved health care, a diverse cultural life, better shopping choices and a four-year university. The feel of this place is so much better than the depressed mill town it was 20 years ago."

Even though the Mt. Bachelor ski area has been mostly above the Bend growth fray, it has had its share of controversy. Founded in 1958, the area was a ski-in-your-jeans area until the early Eighties, when management decided to move the resort up-market. High-speed quads were installed, a massive mid-mountain day lodge was built, and more acreage was opened to skiing.

Even with the improvements, many avid Bend skiers call Mt. Bachelor, Inc., "the evil empire." A place, the disgruntled contend, in love with tourists and their dollars but unfriendly to locals.

Last May, Mt. Bachelor, Inc., sold the area to Powdr Corp., which owns Alpine Meadows in California and Park City in Utah among other ski area properties. Dan Rutherford, who was named president of Mt. Bachelor, Inc., following the sale, knows the problems well. He's a local who's worked at the mountain for 30 years, first in lift maintenance and most recently as vice president of operations. "We're all in this together," he says, speaking of the relationship between the townspeople and mountain management, "and we need to become close friends."

To that end, Rutherford has formed a locals' advisory board that meets quarterly. Season-pass pricing is bound to be a hot topic at the board meetings, as many Bend locals feel they're being priced out at $1,000 for a full pass.

Powdr has a laundry list of upgrades it plans to make. The old main lodge will be either refurbished or rebuilt; snowmaking will be added to enhance early-season skiing; sledding and tubing areas will be created; and the heavily used Pine Marten quad will be replaced by a six-seater.

What won't change is Mt. Bachelor's skiing. It is a cruiser's paradise. The runs are wide open, moderately angled and well groomed. And while not Utah fluff, the snow here is drier than the typical Cascade Crud. And if the snow isn't that great on any given day, not to worry: Bend is only a half-hour away, probably snow-free and a lot more interesting than it used to be.as a laundry list of upgrades it plans to make. The old main lodge will be either refurbished or rebuilt; snowmaking will be added to enhance early-season skiing; sledding and tubing areas will be created; and the heavily used Pine Marten quad will be replaced by a six-seater.

What won't change is Mt. Bachelor's skiing. It is a cruiser's paradise. The runs are wide open, moderately angled and well groomed. And while not Utah fluff, the snow here is drier than the typical Cascade Crud. And if the snow isn't that great on any given day, not to worry: Bend is only a half-hour away, probably snow-free and a lot more interesting than it used to be.