Westward Expansion in the 21st Century: Baker County, Oregon
Recognizing your heritage tourism niche is one thing. Being
able to trade on it is quite another. Often, an area may be so
poor and devoid of infrastructure to support a tourism effort
that opportunities are lost.
In such a case, cashing in on a big celebration might be what
it takes to jump-start future economic stability.
Despite a history literally rich from the gold extracted from
surrounding Blue Mountains and the Powder River Valley in the
late 19th to mid 20th centuries, Baker County, Oregon, was
showing signs of wear by the 1970s. As the gold veins gave out
and the economy shifted to cattle ranching and lumbering, fortunes
were lost and regained. But being in an isolated section of the
country, and suffering the ill effects of an economy based on
the depletion of natural resources, Baker County had, in the
1980s, the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment
rate and the next to lowest per capita income in Oregon. Between
1983 and 1986, nearly 40 businesses in Baker City, the county
seat, closed their doors along Main Street.
Changes began in 1986 when new governor Neil Goldschmidt challenged
the county to come up with a plan to rejuvenate its economy.
In response, community leaders took stock of the area’s
worth: natural beauty, charming historic city, the Oregon Trail,
and the gateway to Hell’s Canyon wilderness area. In short,
Baker County possessed inherent qualities that made it a prime
candidate for heritage tourism development.
With funding from the state lottery, the county hired an economic
development coordinator and devised a four-phased plan. Everyone’s
eye was on the primary goal of capturing tourism dollars from
the national sesquicentennial celebration of the Oregon Trail
scheduled for 1992, and the plan began with designing, raising
funds for, and creating the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
(OTIC) on Flagstaff Hill, a location where trail pioneers first
caught sight of the valley. Funding came from a Regional Strategies
grant, the Bureau of Land Management (which became the OTIC administrator),
and a private donor.
OTIC, which received a whopping 1.2 million visitors in its
first few years, spurred enough interest in capturing tourism
dollars that, shortly after its opening, downtown Baker City
business and property owners approved an economic improvement
district to fund a full-time manager and other promotional programs.
As a result of downtown rehabilitation efforts, more than 75
historic renovations have taken place to complement the city’s
streetscape improvements. The number of jobs in Baker County
has steadily increased and, during the Oregon Trail sesquicentennial,
local stores reported a 30 percent increase in business.
Although the OTIC initially drew record crowds, as the celebration
ran down so did visitorship. Initial expectations of steadily
increasing numbers of visitors didn’t pan out. Yet the
center is still the catalyst for vastly increased tourism opportunities
in this rural Oregon county, where tourism leaders know that
once the excitement of a celebration is over, it takes a much
bigger marketing investment to keep attracting visitors.
Observes Julie Curtis, assistant director of the Oregon Tourism
Commission, “It is important to weigh the cost of any visitor
center, or other tourism infrastructure against not only the
number of visitors you anticipate during the celebration, but
also the number that you will attract in the years after the
celebration is over. Be sure that what you build is sustainable
for the long haul.”
For more information about Baker City and the Oregon Trail Interpretive
Center, visit www.visitbaker.com or call (800) 523-1235.
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