It wasn’t without apprehension back in 2008 that Kathleen Donohue went out to the front lawn of her new home in a quiet Bend development and wedged in an Obama for President sign.
Donohue, who works for a remodeling and renovation company, was a transplant to the Bend area, and she knew the fast-growing Deschutes County city had once been a conservative stronghold.
But in the days that followed, more neighbors than she would have guessed walked by and gave her a thumbs up — a small, but definitive sign that in this corner of Oregon, and others, the winds of change have been blowing softly but steadily over the past 10 years.
It used to be that the so-called Cascade Curtain snapped shut once you left Portland, and stayed closed, save for pockets of Eugene and Ashland. But a new survey conducted for Oregon Public Broadcasting and other sponsors shows that over the past decade, there’s been a measurable shift in opinion that’s brought Southern and Central Oregon closer to the metro area and the Willamette Valley.
The exception is the nine counties of Eastern Oregon, which politically and demographically remain a land unto themselves, estranged from much of the rest of the state.
For example, when asked whether Oregon would be a better or worse place to live in 10 years, optimism levels were relatively high in the metro area, the Willamette Valley, Central and Southern Oregon, with between 25 and 29 percent of respondents in those regions saying things were getting better.
In Eastern Oregon? Only 11 percent of respondents were optimistic about the state’s future.
The sources of their pessimism are different, too. In Eastern Oregon, 25 percent of those who felt things were headed in the wrong direction cited too much government intervention into their daily lives — a concern that minimally registered in the rest of the state, where residents tended to cite unemployment or high taxes as primary concerns.
“Things have really changed here in the past 10 years,” said Dan Barklind, who owns Horizon Village, a green-themed retirement community in Grants Pass. “We’re not moving in unison with the big cities, but there is definitely a closer mindset. The population here has become more cosmopolitan, which I really like. It’s not like it was 35 years ago.”
Part of the difference is demographic. According to the survey, 74 percent of Eastern Oregonians said they’d live in the state for 20 years or more; only 4 percent had lived there for less than five years. Statewide, more than double that number —10 percent — said they’d arrived in the past five years, while 60 percent were longtime residents.
Ethan Seltzer, who heads the Population Research Center at Portland State University, said an influx of new residents — or lack thereof — can have a significant impact on a region, as “people self-select for the places that they want to be.”
None of this means that the people in Southern and Central Oregon are rushing to embrace Portland-style politics or Portlandia-style culture. There’s unlikely to be a push for mandated paid maternity leave or light-rail anytime soon in any of those communities.
That’s partly because the libertarian, independent streak that runs through much of the West is very much in force in these areas, with 39 percent of Central Oregon survey respondents, 45 percent of Eastern Oregonians and 33 percent of Southern Oregonians saying they “agree strongly” that “government should stop telling people how to live their lives.”
“People don’t have a high trust level for government, for bureaucracies,” Barklind said, explaining why fellow Josephine County residents voted down a measure that would have restored police protection after years of cutbacks. “They want their tax dollars to be spent wisely.”
In the more rural stretches of Southern and Central Oregon too, poverty and high drug use remain deep and abiding concerns.
But an influx of new residents and a diversifying economy, born of necessity as one timber mill after another closed its doors for good, have brought unmistakable changes to these regions.
In Roseburg, where there were once one or two hardy pioneers opening wineries, there are now dozens. And the local community college has a well-regarded viticulture curriculum up and running. Meanwhile, the town is debating whether it should change its long-time slogan, “Timber Capital of the Nation,” to something more current, like “Land of the Umpqua.”
In Medford and surrounding towns in the Rogue Valley and on the coast, the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, highly regarded for its geriatrics and orthopedics programs, has helped anchor a healthy retirement community, fueled by a steady population of Californians heading north.
In coastal Port Orford, fishermen tired of getting low prices for their catch have banded together to form a sustainable seafood company that runs the state’s first “community-supported fish” home delivery program. The catch is also delivered to farmers markets and high-end restaurants up and down Interstate 5. Their higher prices, said Mayor Jim Auborn, have forced other fish buyers to pay more for the local catch.
In Bend, a fledgling tech sector is springing up around the established tourism and outdoor recreation sectors, ground is being broken for a new branch of Oregon State University and the best known tech companies in Silicon Valley have spent hundred of millions on server farms in Prineville and The Dalles.
And the real estate market, which took a hit during the recession, has come booming back. Donohue said that for six years, she and her family were living in a half-finished development, until, seemingly overnight, construction resumed and is now round-the-clock.
“Ten years ago, the city of Bend was still trying to grow and recruit in the secondary wood products industry,” said Jodie Barram, a mother and educational assistant who was recently elected to the City Council there. “And that’s no longer an industry in Bend. It’s been replaced with brewing, distilling, fermenting — we have more by the day.”
Along with all that craft beer, she added, has come the feeling that as long as Central Oregon can maintain its own identity, “we are finally recognizing that it’s okay to be in alignment with the Willamette Valley, and I do think it is going to continue to trend that way.”
Meanwhile, much of Eastern Oregon has struggled to move beyond its agricultural and ranching base, though the enormous white wind turbines that are strung across its landscape do attest to an emerging clean energy industry.
“Out here, the land and the environment is bigger than the people in a lot of ways,” said Patty Dorroh, who moved to Harney County with her husband and their two daughters a decade ago.
They live on a ranch about 30 miles outside of Burns. “It’s beautiful, desolate and harsh. And 75 percent of Harney County is federally or state owned, so it’s not going to grow or get developed.
“People say, oh, maybe we can get such-and-such to relocate here, but there is no customer base here, and they would have to ship in everything — it costs too much,” she said. “I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist. It doesn’t mean some day something won’t change, but nothing has even begun to change yet.”
Dorroh said that her two teenage daughters can’t wait to go to college and explore a world beyond their small town; she’s not sure whether they’ll come back to live in Harney County again or not. Jobs are scarce, unless you work for the Bureau of Land Management, the local hospital, county government or the school district.
Lately, she said, she’s seen some of the county’s “gems,” — seniors who have lived there all their lives — move out recently to live closer to children and grandchildren who settled elsewhere to find work.
Peter Maille, an economics professor at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, said the region has been losing population, particularly during the recent recession, save for what he called, “the less mobile folks, who hunkered down, got fishing licenses and firewood permits and sat it out.”
Christina White, who lives with her husband and their two children just outside of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said she’d like to see more new industries open up in Eastern Oregon; instead she’s seen small businesses try and fail because of “too many regulations” from the government. And while her family goes to the Oregon Coast on vacation and to Portland to see their doctor, she said the city feels unfamiliarly fast-paced.
“I can tell when I read the papers or watch the news, I have a different point of view, different priorities — I see things in a different light,” said White, who works part-time in a dermatologist’s office.
And yet, for all these differences, there are shared values statewide. When asked what they valued about living in Oregon, again and again, no matter their hometowns, respondents picked the sheer beauty of the state, the looming mountains, the quiet of the desert, the push and pull of coastal tides.
“That appreciation of landscape and the quality of life,” Seltzer said, “those are core values that are consistent across the state.”