(Coffee with a view | Photo Courtesy of Sunriver Resort)
Sunriver is more than just a recreational suburb of Bend. The idyllic mountain town is a resilient community with a strong business base that is bouncing back quickly from the effects of COVID closures. Families are flocking to Sunriver to escape bigger cities, whether for a weekend retreat or as a potential new place to call home.
“The Sunriver business community, despite being highly dependent on tourism, has shown great resilience and adaptability during the COVID-19 shutdown, and we are coming back strongly as our economy begins to open up,” said Kent Elliott, executive director of the Sunriver Area Chamber of Commerce. “Most essential businesses have remained open, and for the most part, residents have been able to obtain many of the services they need without having to go to Bend. Phase Two is now allowing businesses to reopen, and we are seeing increases in visitors, which will be especially helpful to our tourism-related businesses.”
Cody Herman, owner of Day One Outdoors, which offers “Authentic Adventures on Land and Sea,” said that during the lockdown, there was no business to be had. “The Deschutes National Forest had us closed down until Phase One. But we are fully back up to speed; we are back in full swing.” He added, “It feels good to be getting back to work; it’s been really fun these last few weeks having people come out. It’s nice to see the High Desert Museum opened back up now too. We are slowly getting back to normal. It’s good to see that, but also good that we are still being careful too.”
Elliott said that while Sunriver has endured the past few months well, the challenges in doing so have been numerous. “The biggest challenge for businesses has been to make sudden changes in the way they do business. This included deciding what to do during the shut-down, and then how to operate under new and unfamiliar health and safety protocols for COVID-19,” he said. “As a result, many have had to reinvent the basic ways they conduct business and interact with customers. While we have seen a few businesses decide not to re-open, generally, most have positioned themselves to hit the ground running as our economy comes back.”
“The biggest challenge for Sunriver is that we need tourism, but with the state orders, it kept tourists away. Not because they wanted to stay away, but because they had to for safety,” said Herman. “In all honesty, in my line of work, you need to be prepared for closures. We have weather and regulation closures. But this has been different; none of us planned for this. Business is down at least 35 or 40 percent. We will not recover from that; there are only so many days we can be out on the water.” He continued, “But if you plan for the unexpected and have a safety net, your business can emerge even stronger. This has changed the way I market my business. The main thing is that if you can weather this, it should help educate you and grow your business in ways you never thought possible.”
When Herman reopened his business, he took all the necessary precautions with PPEs, face masks, sanitizers, soap, etc., to make sure clients feel comfortable while out recreating. “As a fishing boat operator, we clean all the gear between trips anyway, because the fish, bait and water can create quite a mess on the boats. We clean every day; this really doesn’t change what we do much. We are used to cleaning,” he said with a laugh. Kidding aside, Herman said he has taken every precaution to ensure that he is following the recreation protocols. We have discussions with customers before they come out to make sure they haven’t been sick recently. We have a release form they must sign.”
The current trend in Sunriver, says Elliott, is part-time residents and tourists coming back to recreate in smaller groups. “Because of the large selection of vacation home rentals, bike paths and natural surroundings, Sunriver has always been an ideal destination for families,” he said. “During this pandemic, Sunriver is one of the best vacation options because of our many outdoor recreational opportunities. Basically, you can enjoy Sunriver without the crowds.” Herman has also observed this pattern. “I’ve noticed that for most part, people who are coming out to enjoy the outdoors are not necessarily booking tours; they are finding other ways of getting out. They are hiking, looking for new places they haven’t seen and exploring new ways to have fun out here. That’s great.” While Day One Outdoors primarily focuses on smaller groups of four to six people on an outing, his shop can accommodate up to 20, by bringing in as many as five boats and extra guides.
“We have seen great innovation and creativity by many businesses to survive and ultimately thrive during this difficult time,” said Elliott. “For example, many restaurants went immediately to take-out or pick-up models when their dining rooms were forced to close. Other shops began providing services that customers and other businesses needed specifically to deal with COVID-19 issues. We also saw our community come together around taking care of our needy families through food and other donations.”
Despite the creativity and buoyancy of the Sunriver business community, however, Elliott said the absence of large gatherings is challenging. “One of Sunriver’s largest economic drivers is conventions, which we won’t see this summer. Many major events have also been canceled. This will have a significant impact on our local economy, although we don’t know the full extent just yet.”
Real estate in Sunriver and Three Rivers South has remained strong, Elliott said, and new construction and remodeling remain steady. “Interest rates remain low, and buyers are looking for rural property and open spaces away from population centers,” he said. “We are encouraged to see that the Sunriver Resort has stayed committed to the construction of its year-round aquatic center scheduled for completion in 2021. The Sunriver Owners Association is also continuing remodeling work on the North Pool Complex.”
Within the Sunriver community, the resort is the area’s largest employer. Other large employers include Sunriver Brewing Company, Camp Abbot Trading Co. and the Country Store. Sun Country and Wanderlust are the primary tour guides in the area, while Hook Fly Shop, Day One and Sunriver Fly Shop are the main fishing operators. Outriders Northwest offers ATV tours and Central Oregon Adventures provides river outings. Biking is also hugely popular in Sunriver: The three primary bike shops are Village Bike and Ski, 4 Seasons Recreational Outfitters and Sunriver Sports.
It’s no doubt that Sunriver draws nature and outdoor enthusiasts from all around the country and world. Southern Deschutes County offers epic hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, golfing and so much more. Its proximity to Mt. Bachelor and local snow parks make it a popular winter destination as well. Newberry National Volcanic Monument is located within a short drive of Sunriver, and provides a unique playground of lava fields, obsidian flows, Paulina and East lakes and spectacular geologic features. For those who need a place to stay or gather while visiting, the resort (destinationhotels.com/sunriver-resort/resort) is a destination hotel with 245 guest rooms and suites, and more than 300 vacation rentals ranging from condos to luxury homes. There are four golf courses, a spa, restaurants and corporate/event areas with more than 44,000 square feet of flexible meeting and banquet space. Guests staying at the resort during this pandemic season can feel safe: The resort has created a 24-page pamphlet outlining its health and sanitation practices, viewable from the home page of its website.
Sunriver Homeowners Aquatics & Recreation Center (SHARC, sunriversharc.com), is another of the area’s big attractions, and has just reopened for the season with COVID safety protocols in place. Pools are available Thursday through Monday, with occupancy restrictions based on OHA requirements. Swimming is in timed sessions, available through online reservations only. An expansion of days and hours is anticipated soon.
The Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory (SNCO), which focuses on the education, research and conservation of the natural sciences, has also now reopened. The SNCO staff has implemented programs to help ensure the health and safety of guests, staff, volunteers and the animals. Visits are ticketed and timed, with advanced reservations required (snco.org).
“The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most challenging economic upheavals that our business community has had to face,” said Elliott. “We are fortunate to have such a strong commitment by our local businesses to our community and, in turn, that the people who live here have shown such great support for our local businesses.” He added, “We are getting through this by pulling together. It goes to show how much we value living and working here, and the quality of life we all enjoy.”