Prineville relying on diversification

As Les Schwab headquarters moves, city looks to resorts, other opportunities

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: December 19. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Van Harris has lived in Prineville since 1942, when he moved with his parents to the area as a child.

Harris said he has seen many transformations in the economic structure of the community over the years – the most recent being Les Schwab Tire Center’s decision to move its corporate headquarters to Bend. “Prineville is changing quite a bit,” Harris said. “Us old-timers aren’t all for all the changes that’s coming on, but we got to accept it ’cause we live here and we enjoy this area.”

Government officials, economic forecasters and population experts all say that Prineville and Crook County will continue to grow exponentially in the future. Politicians in the area routinely cite planning for that growth as a top priority.

But with the closure of most of Prineville’s lumber mills, a decline in local agriculture and last week’s announcement from Les Schwab, many residents are wondering how the town will hold on to its traditionally blue-collar or farming character, and whether the population boom will turn it into little more than a bedroom community to Bend.

The symbolic importance of the departure of Les Schwab’s corporate headquarters has local citizens and politicians, many of whom take a civic pride in Prineville’s association with the company, thinking about how Crook County will maintain economic and cultural viability in the future.

“I think Prineville is on an excellent track for sustained economic growth,” Crook County Court Judge Scott Cooper said. “I think the Central Oregon region is on track for sustained economic growth. I think anybody who believes that the community as it is today will be the same community in 25 years is deluding themselves.

“But I’ve been on both sides of this: the point when we scratched our heads as civic leaders and said, ‘Man, I don’t even know if we have a future, and if we do, I don’t know what it is,’ and the point where we’re at today where there’s no question that we’ve got a future. And I like this side of the divide a whole lot better.”

The home of Les Schwab

In the past, Prineville was known for two main industries: timber and tires.

“The whole western United States knows that Prineville, Oregon, is the headquarters of Les Schwab,” said Carl Andersen, 73, a longtime Prineville resident.

The last of Prineville’s sawmills, Ochoco Lumber Co., closed in 2001, following on the heels of four others.

Two of the local sawmills changed their operations to wood products instead of lumber, preserving some manufacturing positions. Meanwhile, Ochoco Lumber is looking to redevelop its former site at the east end of town into a mixed-use development, a trend that city officials are hoping to encourage in the future through a new comprehensive plan.

Les Schwab Tire Centers also announced a $50,000 grant last week to help Prineville and Crook County with a local economic development program. The company employs about 320 people in its corporate headquarters and 800 people in the operations center. Recently, the company bought another 50 acres from the county to expand its warehouse.

“I suspect you’ll continue to see manufacturing decline as a percentage of the job base, not so much because existing manufacturing jobs go away but because we’ll continue to see new types of service industries coming in,” Cooper said. “Those old-line manufacturing industries just become a smaller part of a bigger pie. That’s the national trend; manufacturing is losing ground as services are gaining ground.”

Cooper added that the agricultural landscape in the county has changed in the last couple of decades as well.

In areas such as Powell Butte, pastures of cows, horses and goats are still common, but fields of produce are not.

“The mint fields are gone and the garlic fields are largely gone and the seed fields are gone; just that globalization problem that’s outside the control of local officials for sure and probably state officials as well,” Cooper said. “Meanwhile, we’re still lining up to go down and buy our produce at the grocery store as long as the price is right, but there is a cost associated with that, and rural communities are paying for it.”

Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said he and other administrators are worried that the types of jobs that provided good careers for local high school graduates without a college degree are not going to exist in the county anymore. At Les Schwab, employees have traditionally been able to work their way up from the distribution center to the corporate office, and the company was known for its generous profit-sharing plan.

Golden noted that Crook County is ranked 35th out of the 36 Oregon counties in the percentage of graduating high school seniors who go on to postsecondary education.

“That’s in some respect because we had good jobs at Les Schwab and the timber industry,” he said. “A lot of higher-end jobs will be leaving Crook County, and we are concerned. And it fits right in with what I’m telling my students, is you have to go on beyond high school, otherwise you’re going to have a very difficult time achieving a middle-class lifestyle.”

Crook County actually picked up some manufacturing jobs in the last couple of years as some mills switched to producing wood products instead of timber. And one Central Oregon firm, Bend Tarp and Liner, has decided to take the opposite path of Les Schwab Tires. It plans to move from Bend to Prineville next year.

Bend Tarp and Liner’s chief financial officer, Steve Caldwell, said he expects to be able to hire good-quality employees in Crook County, despite the county’s low unemployment rate.

As of October 2006, only 4.7 percent of people in Crook County were unemployed, the first time in more than 30 years that the county’s rate dropped below 5 percent, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Despite the changes in the job market, Prineville Mayor Mike Wendel said he does not think the character of the town will alter significantly.

“I think people move to Prineville because they like the lifestyle that we have here. They like the outdoors; they like the small-town feel,” Wendel said. “There’s a lot more to it than just whether it’s a blue-collar town or whether you’re going to be working for Les Schwab or working the mills, because we’ve seen some of that come and go, and Prineville still has the same feel with those changes.”

Rising service industry

Four years ago, the county mapped out a destination resort zone in the hope of bringing more tourism and tax dollars to the area. Now, one resort is selling homes and lots, another just received its initial approval and a third is in the early stages of the application process.

Altogether, those three projects — Brasada Ranch, Remington Ranch and Hidden Canyon — cover 7,100 acres in the Powell Butte area.

“We’ve all come to realize with the growth of the destination resort industry in Bend that they are the gateway to getting business attention for your community,” Cooper said. “People come, they recreate, they enjoy themselves, they start to think after a few days, ‘Boy, I would love to live here full time,’ and pretty soon their companies follow.”

Steve Williams, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department in Bend, agreed that the destination resort industry could help Prineville continue to grow. In 2005, Crook County posted the second-fastest employment growth in the state, according to the Employment Department.

“There’s definitely been a shift from the traditional industries that we used to have here, you know, that dealt with natural resource-based industries, things like lumber and wood products and in the mills and the logging,” Williams said. “As long as Central Oregon continues to prosper and continues to grow, Prineville and Crook County will continue to see the effects of that growth, and now that they’re getting into the destination resort market, that’s only another step in that direction.”

But local officials often say that they do not want job growth in the area to come solely from the service industry, which typically offers lower-paying positions.

“This (decision by Les Schwab) provides an opportunity,” said Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon. “It seems like what’s happened here in communities throughout the West in the last couple of decades is these economic shocks have really forced them to be creative about looking at their economies and the mix of businesses.”

The $50,000 economic development grant from Les Schwab will be partly overseen by EDCO. Lee said that one of the goals for Prineville and Crook County is to attract more white-collar positions.

“I really believe that it’s going to be a broader diversity of companies that will make the community their home in all range of sectors,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s going to change overnight as far as identity changing from something that’s blue-collar, but we’re very focused … on trying to find other white-collar jobs there that are very hard to find.”

Prineville has also seen a spate of new, higher-end housing developments in the last couple of years.

Randy Jones, the project manager for IronHorse, a subdivision developed by Brooks Resources that will eventually add 2,900 homes to the city, said he isn’t worried that some corporate-level residents could be moving to Bend with Les Schwab.

“I think it’s fair to say that there was a suspicion that this could be in the works and we’ve known about it for some time, but the investment that Brooks Resources has made in Prineville — and really, even the optimism that we still feel was expressed with that purchase — really was independent of whether Les Schwab would continue with their headquarters operations in Prineville or not,” Jones said.

Jones said he thinks Crook County appeals to “mobile professionals” who want a quieter lifestyle, even if it means commuting to work, and the wave of baby boomers who are already starting to retire.

Andersen, the Prineville resident, said that he moved away from Prineville in 1981 and lived in California for 20 years. He described Crook County as “more of a retirement community than it is anything else.”

“I expected it to be like it was 20 years ago in ‘81. Was I ever in for a rude awakening,” Andersen said. “It’s not what it used to be.”

John Love, 74, who moved from Sunriver to Prineville a few years ago, said the region has changed but it still has more of a small-town feel than other areas.

“I moved here on account of the smallness of the town,” Love said. “It’s not going to be, but it’s stayed a small town and there’s good people here.”

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