Sisters — A Small Town Where Business, Arts & Community Intersect

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(Downtown Sisters | Photo by Rob Kerr)

“People move here because they want to be in Sisters, and they want to be part of a community,” says Renee Reitmeier, a new entrepreneur in town. “And that’s what I wanted as well.” The area’s natural beauty, Wild West aesthetic, unique cultural events and small-town feel attract folks like Reitmeier. They bring business to Sisters—and not just visitor dollars.

“Tourism is one of the best incentivizers,” said Damon Runberg, regional state economist for the Oregon Employment Department at a recent workshop at City Hall. Visitors arrive for an event, fall in love with the place, and consider relocating or starting a new business here.

Sisters is actively pursuing economic diversification beyond tourism. “Three highly scalable companies that started in Sisters in the last few years are Pawket Treats, Josie’s Best Gluten Free Mixes and Laird Superfood,” said Caprielle Lewis, Sisters area director for Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO). “All are traded sector companies.”

Explosive Growth Rate, Small Numbers

While the town of Sisters has a population of under 3,000, the “Sisters Country” brand and geographical area encompass roughly the Sisters School District, an area containing about 10,000 residents. Within the city itself, “the numbers aren’t big, but the growth rate is jaw-dropping,” according to Runberg.

From 2000 to 2010, population grew by 112 percent, climbing an additional 32 percent by 2018. That growth rate, coupled with a rising real estate market and popularity among retirees, puts a big squeeze on workforce housing and the middle-class families who come for the healthy outdoor lifestyle and good schools.

“Seemingly, the economy is really going well,” explained City Manager Cory Misley, “but in a lot of ways it isn’t. Wages have not caught up with where they need to be.” Housing is expensive and difficult to find, though community programs are available to assist some low-income families. Misley noted that these problems are echoed throughout the state, and the nation as well.

Paul Hodge, co-founder and CEO of Laird Superfood, says the company hires locally whenever able, and also looks to Bend and Redmond for employees. “Currently, housing is a problem, and the cost of housing is high in Sisters,” he said. The company is working to “support and spur” development of middle-class housing in Sisters.

Hodge believes that in order for a town to prosper it needs a strong working middle class. “Sisters currently has a lot of retirees and a highly seasonal tourist economy,” he continued. “Our plan is to provide the steady middle-class working jobs needed.”

Traffic is another sticky wicket. Collaborating with Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Misley hopes a new roundabout can be built within the next three years, relieving congestion along Highway 20/Cascade Avenue and luring traffic down Barclay Avenue instead of through downtown. But the biggest challenge Sisters faces right now, according to Misley: “We are running out of land. We’re really filling up, both residential and commercial/industrial.”

Lewis at EDCO, on the other hand, celebrated anticipated new inventory. “Projected new employment space in our Light Industrial and Business Park will approach 104,000 square feet by the end of 2020,” she said, “which provides exciting opportunities for expanding companies in Sisters, startups, and relocating companies interested in Sisters.” A parcel of U.S. Forest Service land has also been sold and is awaiting development.

For its part, Laird Superfood imagines that its current workforce of about 100 will grow to 300-500 employees in the next three years. Said Hodge, “We just finished building our second factory and are starting the permit process for a third building, and starting to plan for the fourth.”

Tourism Weaves Into Community

Travel and tourism remain an important pillar of the local economy. Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce members are reporting significant increases in sales this year, according to Executive Director Judy Trego. She expects continued growth. “Sisters has experienced double-digit growth in overnight stays every year since 2014,” she said.

Community spirit plays a significant role in Sisters Country tourism. The famed Sisters Rodeo, for example, is entirely volunteer-produced. With grassroots origins, Sisters Folk Festival and Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show bring in thousands of visitors during their big annual events, and raise the town’s profile among creatively inclined visitors throughout the year. Up-and-comers like the Rhythm & Brews festival and the newly revitalized Sisters Farmers Market are driven by locals with a passion for culture and community-building.

The hands-on forest work of the nonprofit Sisters Trails Alliance builds important infrastructure for cyclists, horseback riders and hikers, and helps create accessible forest walks within a short drive of downtown. Churches, schools, Sisters Parks and Recreation District (SPRD), and charity groups like Kiwanis provide support and activities during the town’s largest events. They also draw visitors in their own right; SPRD hosts lacrosse tournaments and a popular annual luau, in addition to year-round amenities such as Hyzer Pines Disc Golf Course.

The Arts Blossom

In the arts economy, Sisters Folk Festival has made significant changes to its administrative structure this year. It also purchased the Sisters Art Works building from philanthropists Frank and Kathy Deggendorfer, who offered it to the nonprofit organization for half its market value. According to development director Steven Remington, the organization took out a bridge loan to fund the purchase, and continues its $1.4 million capital campaign to facilitate the sale, necessary building upgrades and related costs. Its vaunted Americana program in Sisters public schools is joined by a slate of year-round arts and music programs.

Sisters Arts Association promotes a 4th Friday Art Stroll and studio tours. “In 2010 there were three galleries in Sisters,” said artist and educator Kit Stafford. “Today, 19 gallery spaces are in business. Our first Open Studio Tour three years ago saw 150 visitors dropping in on eight artists in their work spaces.” This year, the tour expanded to two days, encompassing 25 studios visited by 1,800 people.

“The community has come together over the arts,” Stafford noted. “Simply put, the arts are good business.” Sisters Arts Association will also partner with the City of Sisters to install outdoor public art in several locations.

A wide array of projects advancing the creativity and livability of Sisters are funded in part by the Roundhouse Foundation. Roundhouse is shifting its focus to the old Pine Meadow Ranch, which it purchased to use as a combination working ranch and artist residency center. Longstanding arts center Caldera, up the road near Suttle Lake, continues to activate the community with events, educational programs, and artists-in-residence.

“We’ll See What It Becomes.”

Framed by a sunny window whose view encompasses sparkling mountain peaks and a smattering of light industrial buildings, Reitmeier sits in the coffeehouse of her dreams. After zeroing in on Central Oregon as the potential home for her new business, she left the Portland area and spent 18 months working in businesses from Mt. Bachelor to Black Butte Ranch. Always, she searched for the right location for her startup: a coffeehouse and co-working space.

Eventually she found it, on Sun Ranch Drive in Sisters. The area flanking Barclay Road is a part of town unknown to most visitors, but locals know it well. A post office, bank, rental company, recycling center and log home builder are located here, along with several auto mechanics and the headquarters of Metabolic Maintenance, which develops innovative nutritional supplements. Reitmeier’s Fika Sisters Coffeehouse (pronounced Fee-ka) has done well here; she is “really pleasantly pleased” so far.

Her small co-working space, called Jobb, and its weekly meetup have been slower to catch on. Reitmeier hasn’t promoted Jobb much, focusing on the coffeehouse first. In such a small town, the process of reaching out is simple: “I’m going to take out an ad in The Nugget soon,” she said. The local newspaper enjoys strong readership among area residents. As a free weekly paper with wide distribution, it reaches thousands of tourists as well.

Also useful for entrepreneurs, artisans and remote workers are a relatively new internship program through Sisters School District and EDCO, a forgivable loan program through the City, and the requisite cafés and libraries with Wi-Fi. An ongoing series of art and craft fairs, such as the Chamber of Commerce’s Harvest Faire every October, complements a vibrant core of local shops and restaurants.

The new Sisters Farmers Market offers a full four-month season, operating every Sunday through the end of September. Its arts and education programming create a special spot for local talent, agriculture, craft, hot foods and family microbusiness. In a town full of educated retirees, finding mentorship and advice can be easy: join one of the many active churches, or strike up a conversation in Paulina Springs Books, dubbed “arguably the region’s best independent bookstore” by The New York Times.

It all comes back to community. “The people we hire are in Sisters for the right reasons,” said Laird Superfood’s Hodge, “to enjoy the natural beauty and recreation it has to offer, and most have families with young children who will be part of the wonderful Sisters School District.” In his estimation, “The future is bright for Sisters.”

Reitmeier enthusiastically lists the businesses near Fika and Jobb. Woodworkers and tile artists are among her immediate neighbors, along with a letterpress studio started from the ashes of Atelier 6000 and Bend Art Center. She is especially pleased to be among several artisanal, women-owned enterprises.

“I’ve been enjoying all of them,” Reitmeier said. “It’s creating a makers’ district, with Three Creeks Brewery nearby. We’ll see what it becomes.”

Disclosure: Sisters is a small town. This writer has worked with or volunteered for a number of entities appearing in this article.

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