Outdoor recreation: a natural economic boost
Rural areas capitalize on the stunning beauty of their surroundings
When the timber industry declined in the late 1980s, many people left the town of Oakridge to find work elsewhere. “Having the mills closed ripped a hole out of the town, and for a long time, Oakridge was the place where people didn’t want to be,” says Ben Beamer, who first moved to the town when he was five years old.
Things started to change about 20 years ago. That’s when the new sport of mountain biking came into its own, and Oakridge, surrounded by national forest perfect for bike trails, was discovered.
The potential for bike tourism is practically endless
Gradually, Oakridge came alive again. Drawn by its natural attractions, people moved to the area with their families; some of them brought their businesses as well. Others established second homes in the area. Stores catering to the bike industry opened, as did restaurants, a bakery and a brewery. Instead of loggers in the woods, there were mountain bikers. And instead of being known as the “Heart of the Timber Empire,” Oakridge became known as the “Mountain Bike Capital of the Northwest.”
“There is a great story unfolding here in Oakridge around trails and recreational tourism,” says community leader Erika Coyer, a graduate of the Ford Institute Leadership Program’s Oakridge cohort.
Outdoor recreation is a huge draw for visitors, and the Northwest’s list of activities is almost endless. Visitors come to the area for world-class golfing, cycling, fishing, kayaking, skiing, rafting and windsurfing. For rural communities, situated in some of the most stunning areas, these natural assets are an invaluable economic driver.
Siskiyou County biking
In recent years, many rural communities are leveraging the popularity of biking to bring stability and vitality to their towns. In Siskiyou County in Northern California, business owners, community leaders and cycling enthusiasts recently gathered to discuss bicycle tourism, an event spearheaded by the volunteer Economic Growth Group and sponsored by The Ford Family Foundation and Mt. Shasta Ski Park. Participants spent a day identifying goals and resources that could help promote bicycle tourism, and a second day developing an action plan.
The plan included tasks such as identifying existing mountain bike trails, developing trail maps, encouraging local businesses to be more bicycle-friendly and securing funding to establish a bicycle tourism organization.
“Siskiyou County has some of the most beautiful terrain in the west, and so much of it is accessible by bike,” Jim Mullins, president of the Mt. Shasta Chamber of Commerce, told the Siskiyou Daily News. “The potential for bike tourism is practically endless, and it can play a vital role in the recovery of the county’s economy.”
In Oakridge, the town looks a lot different than it did in the 1980s. “We’re changing the view of the former timber town to a mountain-bike mecca, and the sense of place is very different,” says Beamer, who moved back to Oakridge in 1994 while attending school at the University of Oregon.
Beamer is the chairman of GOATS (the Greater Oakridge Area Trail Stewards), a volunteer group that spends thousands of hours every year maintaining trails and planning and building new ones. Today, Oakridge has one of the largest trail networks in the Northwest and sponsors several mountain bike events that regularly sell out months in advance.
The town was recently designated a “ride center” by the International Mountain Biking Association, a designation that recognizes its importance as a mountain-biking venue. That designation helped it win $400,000 in federal funds for parks and trail infrastructure.
The town is even featured in the documentary ﬁlm Pedal Driven, which recognizes Oakridge for its ability to create solutions between mountain bikers and land managers, and for how mountain bicycling is transforming the community.
“I see economic development as a giant jigsaw puzzle with lots of little pieces,” Beamer says. “For Oakridge, mountain biking is a key piece.”
Hardware store capitalizes
on growing bicycle tourism
James Johnson began operating the historic Joseph Hardware store about 10 years ago. What he didn’t know at the time was that he was going into the bicycle business. But an opportunity opened up when the only bike shop in Wallowa County closed, and the hardware store soon began offering a few simple repair services.
That was about seven years ago, right around the time the demand for bicycle-related services began growing as visitors flocked to the wide-open spaces of Eastern Oregon, bringing their bikes with them.
Soon, Joseph Hardware added bike rentals, then bike sales. Johnson sent himself and two employees to school—the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, one of the best bike-mechanics schools in the country.
Community leaders recognized the potential for bicycle tourism, and Wallowa County served as the pilot for Oregon Rural Tourism Studio, a four-month training program sponsored by Travel Oregon for regional leaders interested in sustainable tourism development.
Joseph Hardware today employs two full-time and one part-time bike mechanics. “We definitely see a bunch of tourism, and so many people are here to bike,” Johnson says. “We’ve seen an increase in business. Last April, the place next door opened up, and we punched a hole in the wall and expanded our bike shop.”