Volume XV | Issue 2 | Fall 2015
The benefits of being in Sisters outweigh the challenges, says Preston Thompson. He shared his story at the Sisters Country Economic Summit in May. Photo: Ross Chandler

A music-friendly environment

Preston Thompson finds rewards and challenges after moving his guitar business to Sisters

When Preston Thompson decided to re-launch his custom guitar-making business, he didn’t have to look too far from his Bend home for the right location. A musician-friendly environment, the right light-manufacturing site, and a supportive community — he found it in nearby Sisters.

relocated the shop to Sisters

Thompson, whose handcrafted guitars have been played by musicians since the 1970s, took a 20-year break from the business to work in marketing for two local resorts. After he began fielding inquiries for his instruments via the Internet, he decided in 2008 to relaunch the business. “By 2010, I really jumped back in,” he says. He began by operating out of his house in Bend, but, after taking on a couple of partners, relocated the shop to Sisters in October 2013.

Thompson and other entrepreneurs shared their stories at last May’s Sisters Country Economic Vitality Summit. “Shaping Sisters: Pioneers on the Frontier of Innovation” was one in a series of economic vitality summits across the state organized by local communities with the help of Rural Development Initiatives and The Ford Family Foundation. 

 “The intention was to bring the community together and show off what we are doing,” says Caprielle Foote-Lewis, Sisters manager of EDCO, a Central Oregon economic development nonprofit organization. “We wanted to engage the community in embracing change, and looking at different ways to grow into the future.”

The summit event

A series of panel discussions featuring local students and businesspeople sparked discussion on topics ranging from workforce and livability issues to entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges. Participants also talked about Sister’s current community assets, including its cultural heritage and large, established events, such as the Sisters Folk Festival, Sisters Rodeo and the Sisters Quilt Show.

The event was instrumental in highlighting challenges currently faced by business owners. For Sisters, one of those challenges is lack of housing for workers. 

“One of the top challenges for rural communities that are seeking to expand their economic diversity relates to the workforce housing and livability issues,” says Alexa Carey, an RDI facilitator. “Participants of the summit repeatedly highlighted how affordable housing for local community members is severely lacking.”

“Discussions got very loud, people got very engaged,” says Foote-Lewis.  

Rural challenges

In many ways, Sisters is an ideal location for Preston Thompson Guitars. The town had what Thompson was looking for: a focus on the arts, convenience for his partners who live there, and just the right location. 

“What pushed it over the hump,” he explains, “is that the Belfry is right next door to us.” 

The historic Belfry, an old church on Main Street, today serves as a popular musical venue for well-known performers. The city granted Thompson a conditional use permit that allowed him to lease the 2,000-square-foot building next door for a manufacturing facility as well as a small retail storefront. 

But Thompson also acknowledged the challenges of operating an international manufacturing business in a rural area. Housing, as many on the summit panel noted, is a problem. He commutes from Bend, as do several of his employees who would prefer to live in Sisters. 

“The commutes add some challenges and expense,” he says. Shop workers make regular runs into Bend for supplies when they can’t find what they need at the local hardware store. His building is lacking a few features that would be found in an industrial-park setting.

Still, Thompson says, the benefits of being in Sisters outweigh the challenges. He is working with students in the Sisters High School Americana Community Luthier Program, and he continues to be involved with the Sisters Folk Festival and other musical events.

“I think we just want to really sink the roots deeper, and that is happening all the time,” he says. “This cool, quaint town is an important ingredient and builds on the international brand that we have established.”  

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