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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.

Photo by Baker County Visitor and Convention BureauDespite a history literally rich from the gold extracted from the 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.

Photo by Baker County Visitor and Convention BureauOTIC, 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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National Trust for Historic Preservation ®