Oregon communities struggling to create jobs will soon have access to tens of millions of dollars in state tourism funds. July 1st, a new lodging tax goes into effect. The city of Oakridge embraced mountain biking as its road to economic recovery. Residents there may consider several ways to further attract visitors.
The Willamette Mountain Mercantile in Oakridge has a steady stream of clients. Some are here to rent bikes, some to buy accessories, and some for a shuttle to a trailhead. A dozen years ago, the 300-plus miles of trails were here, but none of the current outdoor recreation businesses existed. The former lumber town struggled with one of the worst economies in Oregon. The transition is remarkable, but it hasn't happened overnight. Eugene Cathcart is General Manager at the Willamette Mercantile.
Cathcart: “It's been a slow progression. Just a little bit more every year. It really feels like we have the ball rolling here.”
Scott Bricker's job at Travel Oregon, the state's tourism agency, is to promote and increase visitorship. He says the industry brings over ten billion dollars to the state every year and employs over 100 thousand people.
Bricker: “Travel Oregon is renown for its destination development team. This is not something that every tourism agency is doing, and it's been incredibly successful.”
Beginning July first, Bricker will have a bigger budget to work with. House Bill 4146 increases the state lodging tax from 1 to 1.8 percent for four years. While the bill recognizes the need to support the 2021 World Track championships in Eugene, nothing specific is earmarked. Bricker says there will be millions available to fund other efforts.
Bricker: “At the end of the day, the message is that there will be significant increased resource for both the tourism regions as well as these grant programs”
Bricker says the state has been divided into seven regions, including the high desert and the coast. What kinds of things would tourists and business owners like to see in the Willamette Valley region of Oakridge? Cathcart says trail users have one obvious desire:
Cathcart: “Signage is one of the biggest elements that we need to focus on.”
He adds, other outdoor activities could generate new interest:
Cathcart: “We have great river systems here, so there are definitely a lot of opportunities for fishing, rafting, hiking, other lodging and culinary opportunities.”
Mercantile employee Chris Brownfield participated in the first Mountain Bike Oregon rides in the mid-2000's. He loved the area so much he moved here from California and became a guide. He wishes the town's economy was stronger:
Brownfield: “More jobs would be good. A lot of people here don't work. There's a significant welfare thing going on here, a lot of Section 8 housing.”
With his wife Lynda, Gary Carl is one of the biggest employers in town. They own the Oakridge Lodge and several local restaurants. Carl says business is good, in spring and summer.
Carl: “It's been increasing year over year. It's very seasonal. Winters are very slow in Oakridge in general.”
Travel Oregon's Bricker cites snow sports and cultural events like nearby Westfir's covered bridge lighting as possible ways to span the slow months. Right now, use of national forest trails is in full swing. Brian Browning lives in Portland. He's here for two nights, and says it's hard to find enough places to eat.
Browning: “Well it's a bit limited. I guess the bakery burned down. We try and get some nutrition for these rides so we definitely avoid the fast food restaurants.”
Oakridge and other Lane County locations will soon have a shot at realizing their tourism wish lists. Bricker says Travel Oregon will hold a roundtable meeting in east Lane County this fall. It will look to build on success:
Bricker: “What can we do next to take what we have, which is incredible, and get it to the next level so we continue to drive people to our communities. I know, for example, Oakridge really would love to have Amtrak back to its community. That may be something they go after.”
Travel Oregon will host gatherings in Roseburg and the Umpqua valley in the spring. The organization also wants to showcase agricultural bounty and improve car-free travel options statewide.