Bend: A Boom Town Again?

The question mark is only a slight modifier. I'm pretty sure Bend is going through another one of its booms. When half the people who come in the door announce that they have just moved to Bend or are planning to move to Bend. When new businesses are opening everywhere.

I think this is the fourth boom I've seen in the last 36 years of business. The first was the boom in the late 70's up until the Reagan recession. The bust after that was the most severe this town has ever seen, including the Great Recession, compounded by the decline of the lumber industry. There was a ten year dry spell after this, with very little building or development in Bend. The stores in downtown at the time would be astonished by the activity and vitality of downtown today.

It was a time of opportunity, too. Pegasus Books was able to establish itself downtown (which was half empty.)

Then a second boom started around 1990, which lasted until a slight crunch near the turn of the century. Then the biggest boom from about 2002 or so until the Great Recession.

Now, for reasons that escape me, we seem to be going through another one.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I see these events as cresting events--that is, we get a big surge, which doesn't pan out, but which when it recedes still leaves the town higher up. A whole lot of creative destruction.

Much of the creative destruction would be avoidable if these new businesses would take the time to research Bend, realize its limitations. Instead, they get the opposite. Boosterism from every direction.

Who's going to tell newcomers the negative parts? Me? Heh. Not likely.

I don't take all this personally. I try not to be a nativist. As I always say, I couldn't even have this business if Bend hadn't grown. In fact, it needed to keep growing as my niche became smaller and more fragmented. I've managed to bring in a combination of product lines that manages to work.

Which makes me skeptical of the specialists that always pop up during booms. I'm a comic store, a bookstore, a games store, a toy store. I sincerely doubt I could survive as only one of these.

But...there is always a window of opportunity during a boom. Specialists can work, even thrive during a Bend boom. Trouble is, that layer of support evaporates during the inevitable bust. When I see a boom, I build into it, but I don't assume it is going to last. In other words, my base of support has to be strong enough to survive when the boom is over.

So diversity does that job. But it also means that if a game store, or a bookstore, or any kind of specialty but comics (I do the full-service comic thing) comes along, they may look for a time like they are doing the right thing.

Maybe, I suppose, if the boom continues long enough, if it doesn't bust too much, it's possible Bend can finally support the kind of specialty shops that its population would seem to indicate it should.

This is where a little skepticism and critical thinking might work.

I've always said, most of these stores would work--if you do EVERYTHING right. I do mean EVERYTHING. That's a hard measure, especially for a new business that is trying to find its way. Not impossible, just really, really hard to pull off.

So what I see is--stores opening in locations that are sexy but pretty much won't work. A classic example of newcomer thinking is that they believe they can do a "neighborhood" specialty store.

Now neighborhood stores work if they have a broad enough appeal. Specialty is the opposite of Neighborhood, so you need to position yourself for the entire town, actually, all of Central Oregon.

First, try to scale your business for a Salem, Medford, or Eugene size market (even though all those markets are twice our size and along the I-5 corridors.) Be careful, but try. Because Bend people and tourists want big city services with a small town population. Whatever you do, don't think you can do what Portland does. Portland literally has 10 times our pull.

Secondly, realize the rhythm of Bend. It's a tourist town, with four or five good months, four or five bad months, and the rest in-between. Realize you are opening in a boom and the good times won't continue forever. You want to open a "pure" store in your specialty, but you might want to bring in some diverse product.

Third, realize that there is veneer of sophistication to Bend that is not very broad or very deep. It's what you see when you visit downtown, or the Old Mill, or Northwest Crossing. Much of it is aspirational rather than real. Much of it is fueled by the ardor of a single creator--which may dim over time, because getting EVERYTHING right is exhausting.

Fourth, realize our demographics. Yes, there are rich people here. Yes, some techies are telecommuting here. But mostly Bend is a tourist and retirement town, and that means mostly minimum wage jobs. Look up "Poverty with a View" in the Urban Dictionary. We don't really have a high paying industry around here that I can see.

Fifth, realize that Bend isn't all it appears to be. We are the furthest from an interstate than any other metro area in America. That's a big deal, actually. The entire eastern two/thirds of Oregon is bare of population outside of Central Oregon. We don't really have a four year college-- though we're working for one. We do get snow, sometimes lots of it. What happens is, newcomers see the glitz of Northwest Crossing or the Old Mill or the slightly funkier downtown, and assume it is all working great instead of...well, a work in progress with lots of creative destruction.

I could go on, but what's the point? Anyone who moves to Bend is convinced that we're a great place, and how weird it is that we don't have a specialty game store, or bookstore, or toy store. Worst, that whatever stores are that are doing that are falling down on the job and they could do so much better... (Instead of wondering, for instance, why 5 new bookstores have failed here since B & N came to town.)

So we're on another roller-coaster ride and good luck to all of us.