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Arts | NW Life | State of Wonder

Rewind On Arts & The Rural Economy: A Love Story


The weather’s got us dreaming of our favorite summer road trips. We did our share of miles this summer, and we couldn’t help but notice the same question coming up in many of the Northwest’s small towns:

”We’ve got an economy desperate for a boost and something cool going on with arts and culture. What can we do with that?”

Of course, towns like Ashland, Cannon Beach and Sisters are well down the road. Their streets are packed all summer long with tourists wandering galleries, theaters, and shops. 

But other rural communities are just beginning the journey. They’ve spent years searching for something to replace the resource industries that once fueled them. (It’s a search made all the more urgent by the recent end of federal timber payments.)

We’re going to spend this hour on a road trip to three towns. Each steps up to arts and the economy in a different way.

Overlooking Burns

Overlooking Burns

Aaron Scott/OPB

First Stop: Burns, Oregon.

In the 1970s, Burns was one of the wealthiest counties in the state per capita. Now, it’s near the bottom.

“From an economic standpoint, we are a community stymied from economic opportunities taken for granted in other parts of the state,” said Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels. “We have no railroad, no freeway, and only the loss of industry in recent years.” 

Runnels said they’ve tried everything to turn things around: secondary wood products, agricultural products, restarting the lumber industry.

 Now a dedicated group of artists, arts educators and arts supporters think they should try something new: a Performing Arts and Education Center. The group, spearheaded by the Harney County Arts in Education Foundation, organized a symposium in May around the center potential to drive economic development. 

The conceptual drawings portray a stunning $16 million modern building designed to blend into the surrounding mesa landscape. But opponents say not only could the county struggle to afford the building, it couldn’t even afford to heat it should it be built. 

We bite into some of the questions Harney County’s wrestling with and then call up economist Ann Markusen, who’s done a lot of research on arts and economic development at the University of Minnesota, for a little context. 

Then we look at some models that are working around the region.

Graypants uses Mighty Tieton's production facilities to make Scraplights, a lighting collection made entirely from cardboard boxes.

Graypants uses Mighty Tieton's production facilities to make Scraplights, a lighting collection made entirely from cardboard boxes.

Phoebe Flanigan

Next Up: Tieton, Washington - 14:20

You can get your whole community together to talk about the arts and spend years getting buy-in from partners at all levels. Or you can just have one person come in, open the wallet, and reset the playing field.

That’s what happened in Tieton, Washington. 

After publisher Ed Marquand got stuck patching a flat tire while riding through the small hamlet, he noticed a number of empty warehouses and storefronts. So he rallied some of his Seattle friends and started buying up properties and converting them into creative workshops, live/work spaces and condos.

This is the story of how they transformed the town into a creative destination with a project they dubbed “Mighty Tieton.” 

This story originally ran on the podcast Rendered and comes to us courtesy of producers Phoebe Flanigan and Julie Sabatier.

The Chief Joseph statue on Main Street

The Chief Joseph statue on Main Street

Aaron Scott/OPB

Final Destination: Joseph, Oregon - 28:08

What can you say about Joseph? It’s a picture perfect town at the base of the picture perfect Wallowa Mountains. 

But it wasn’t always that way. 

“It was the poster child for economic depression,” said sculptor Shelley Curtis, who moved there in the early 80s. “Probably 70 percent of the storefronts on Main Street were vacant.” 

About that time, an artist saw one of the sawmills abandoned by the collapse of the timber industry, and decided to start a bronze foundry. It attracted sculptors and artisans, who in turn started their own foundries, turning Wallowa County into a hotbed of bronze. 

And then Curtis ran for city council and mayor and spearheaded a campaign to completely revamp Main Street, burying power lines and landscaping the side walks with pavers, trees and bronze sculptures. 

The result was huge. Whereas Joseph was once a grocery stop on the way to Wallowa Lake, it now became a destination. Since Main Street’s facelift in 2000, visitor spending in the county has grown from $16.5 million to $26.5 million, according to Travel Oregon. 

What was it that made Joseph such a perfect melting pot for arts and the economy? We find out.

Hennes grew up in a Minnesota town of 12,000. "For me it's largely about the landscape, having a place to escape that's quiet, a way out of daily routines."

Hennes grew up in a Minnesota town of 12,000. "For me it's largely about the landscape, having a place to escape that's quiet, a way out of daily routines."

April Baer/OPB

Parting Treat: The Jennings Hotel - 42:05

Greg Hennes knows a thing or two about the romance of rusticity. He created both Campfire Cologne — which is basically a chunk of wood and a match — and Antler and Company — which sells all things made of antlers. But now he’s taking his love to Joseph.

Earlier this year, he bought the 100-year-old Jennings Hotel and then raised $100,000 via Kickstarter to remodel it into a boutique hotel and artist residency. And that’s just the beginning.

The excellent country music you heard this week? It all came from the Lonesome Billies new album, “It’s Good To Be Lonesome.

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