By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: December 13. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – After years of speculation about the future of Les Schwab Tire Centers in Prineville, the company officially informed city and Crook County representatives Tuesday that it will move its corporate headquarters to Bend.

In the wake of the announcement, local government officials said they are disappointed and worried about the possible economic impact – but things could be worse.

“I was glad to see that 800 employees are staying, that’s probably the most positive thing that I got out of it, and I’m also glad to know that the company is going to stay in the region,” Crook County Court Judge Scott Cooper said.

Les Schwab Tire Centers currently employs about 320 people in its corporate office out of approximately 1,150 total in the Prineville headquarters and distribution center, making it Crook County’s largest employer. Cooper said company officials assured him Tuesday that the tire retreading, warehouse, transportation and distribution center will remain in Prineville.

“The whole issue speaks to the growing regionality of Central Oregon, the fact that people are comfortable with the idea that they can have their work force located in one place and their headquarters located in another,” Cooper said.

“A decade ago, this would have been a Bend versus Prineville issue – I don’t think that is nearly so much the case today.”

Prineville Mayor Mike Wendel said he was upset by the news, but hopes to be able to convince the company to keep its corporate office in the same town where Les Schwab settled and founded his business.

“We’re not going to give up,” Wendel said.

“I believe Les Schwab has been a part of Prineville for a long time, and I believe that they will be for a long time to come.”

The company grew out of an O.K. Rubber Welders tire store that Schwab purchased in Prineville in 1952. Today, the company employs more than 7,700 people at 410 locations throughout the West and Alaska.

Wendel said he thinks that many of the office employees who currently live in Prineville will stay in the town.

“We have a great community, it’s a great place to live in and raise a family in, and even though some of them don’t want to commute, they will commute,” Wendel said.

But he added that the local hospitality industry could suffer if people flying in for meetings are no longer patronizing Prineville’s hotels and restaurants.

“It’s a large blow to our community, (but) will our community bounce back? Yeah,” Wendel said. “We’ve seen (events) like this, maybe not on this scale, but Prineville used to a be mill community and we’ve regrouped and revamped.”

The county and city could also lose some tax revenues from the office building, which is located on U.S. Highway 26 near its intersection with state Highway 126 at the west entrance to Prineville. Cooper said citizens could see a slight tax bump, but County Assessor Tom Green said the commercial real estate market in Prineville is fairly vibrant right now and the building’s assessed value probably would not change much.

Cooper said he wasn’t surprised by the news of the move – rumors have swirled for years that the tire company would relocate – but he added that he “didn’t think they’d do this while Les was still around.”

Many community members have speculated that Schwab, 89, is in declining health. A spokeswoman at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Prineville said she did not “have any information on that patient in our files.”

Ann Hensley, 61, a local resident having lunch at the Tastee Treet restaurant in Prineville on Tuesday, said the news does not surprise her. She described Schwab as “almost like the father of this town.”

Candice Dyer, 36, said that Schwab’s decision to keep the company in Prineville for so many years showed his dedication to the community.

“I think it’s a hometown establishment; they started here, they should stay here,” Dyer said. “It’s what Les Schwab was built on – family values, small-town values.”

In his autobiography, first published in 1986, Schwab acknowledged that Prineville could be seen as an odd choice for the headquarters of such a large company.

“Prineville really isn’t the greatest place to make our headquarters,” he wrote. “Transportation in and out is poor by plane, by rail and by truck. I do think, in total, we get a higher class employee and a more loyal employee. That helps.”

He added that, at the time he was writing, Les Schwab had become the largest independent tire company in the United States, “and (our company) is in the small town of Prineville, in Central Oregon, which is even more unique. I am proud of it.”

Several residents said that the presence of Les Schwab Tire Centers in Prineville is important to the town’s cultural and historical identity.

But Jim Kucera, 69, said he is not bothered by the change, as long as the company’s operational staff remains.

“It’s not going to matter to us, except a few office personnel,” Kucera said. “If they took the distribution center, it would cost the town.”

Phil Harrison, 65, took a more oppositional stand, saying Prineville residents “won’t allow it.”

“We’ll park our four-wheel-drives there and block the bridge off,” he said, chuckling. “It’s just tradition, it started here and I’m sure they’re doing it because it benefits them economically, but I don’t like to see tradition just dashed.”

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