Entrepreneurs are essential to rural communities struggling to redefine themselves. Chester Trabucco, Randy Stemper, Robert Jacob, Floyd Holcom and others have given Astoria a new look through projects they have brought to fruition.
There is no guidebook or blueprint on how to engage an entrepreneur. They show up.
Parley Pearce is what Pendleton has long needed. He and his partner, Blair Woodfield, have purchased and refurbished the historic Hamley Saddlery building. I heard Pearce's unconventional story recently during a lunch in Pendleton. He is a veterinarian and owns a veterinary practice, but he hasn't practiced because he's so busy doing property deals. It seems that Pearce and his college roommate, Woodfield, started buying properties while they were undergraduates. The kind of rejuvenation Astoria now enjoys is just what Pendleton needs.
There is another kind of makeover that I'm not sure is good for a town. It's the vast infusion of cash that utterly transforms a place, makes it into something entirely else and crowds out working people as well as the innate charm of a place. That's what has happened to Bend, where the town's character has been subsumed in an array of retail franchises that could be anywhere, and where housing prices have become unaffordable to working people.
There is a new word that describes this phenomenon of quick and complete transformation. It's "rurbia," - the arrival of urban and suburban growth in the middle of rural places.
Donald Snow coined that word in his presentation May 19 on the top floor of the Hamley Building in Pendleton. Snow's topic was "The Transformation of the Rural West." Snow is the visiting Mellon professor of environmental studies at Whitman College in nearby Walla Walla, Wash. The event was sponsored by the Oregon Council for the Humanities.
It used to be that migration to rural America was based on crops, a manufacturing plant or the railroad. The rurbia phenomenon is quite different. "What's driving this growth is mostly intangible, imaginary and experiential," said Snow. "It's the upper middle class who are cashing out of Southern California and urban places and putting their proceeds into rural places."
Unlike the growth of a big city, the rurbian phenomenon is unpredictable. "In a city, there is nothing surprising about urban edge growth. But rurbian growth comes suddenly," he said.
What fuels the rurbia phenomenon? There are two causes, says Snow. They are the information age and the baby boom, which is on the receiving end of a transfer of immense wealth.
"The hallmark of the information age is the symbolic reinvention of the self," said Snow. Thus wealthy baby boomers are always in a "search for the next cool thing."
Of places such as Bend has become, Snow said: "It's as if the editors of Outside magazine, Golf Digest, Martha Stewart's Living and the Orvis catalogue got together to plan this place."
Of the town where Whitman College resides, Snow said: "Walla Walla has become a city person's small town." He noted a bumper sticker now proliferating in Walla Walla that proclaims: "Don't Bend Walla Walla."
While the Oregon Coast probably does not qualify as rurbia, it does have one characteristic that is apparent in the places Snow describes. If you examine places such as the Highlands of Gearhart and Arch Cape, you notice that the preponderance of these new mega-homes are unoccupied, even on the big summer holidays. Consequently, these places have become ghost towns of affluence. The owners are presumably in their primary residence or perhaps in their third home.
Snow said the ghost town phenomenon raises an important question of what happens to such housing stock when the affluent move on to the next cool place. Snow said there is a satirical film about that very phenomenon. It's called The Lost People of Mountain Village.
Average Americans have always been drawn to the West as a place where they could begin again and assume a new identity. But the kind of reinvention that rurbia spawns is for the wealthy alone.
At bottom, there is an emptiness to rural places when they become theme parks. It's a like the huge corporations whose presence is everywhere, but who put down roots nowhere.