Where Old West Meets New


The community of Sisters is deservedly prized as a picturesque Old West-style haven framed by the spectacular backdrop of the Cascade Mountain Range, but business activists are also continuing a drive to add increasing economic diversity to the small town charm.

Nestled below the Three Sisters’ rugged volcanic peaks, which sometimes seem within ethereal touching distance, the scenic spot featuring turn-of-the century Western-themed storefronts is a major tourist draw at the gateway between Central Oregon and the mountain passes linking the region to the Willamette Valley.

In fact, with its many unique shops, famous resident artisans, galleries and eating establishments, the town on the main Highway 20 route boasts amongst the highest per capita spending of any population center in Oregon.

Its reputation as a festivas focal point is also well merited, with events like the authentic “biggest little show in the world,” Sisters Rodeo, now in its 70th year, and the country’s largest outdoor Quilt Show – which marks its 35th anniversary this July – receiving national and international acclaim.

Other annual fixtures showcasing a vibrant arts and cultural community include the Harvest Faire and Village Green Craft Shows, and draws such as the renowned Sisters Folk Festival, have also proved consistently popular.

The geographic location on the edge of the expansive Deschutes National Forest is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts looking to sample the delights of hiking, fishing, camping, golfing, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, horseback riding, snowmobiling or just plain relaxation. With convenient access to trail heads on all fronts, it is the launching point for many adventurers beginning their backpacking and camping trips.

The pristine 1.6 million-acre ponderosa pine playground on Sisters’ doorstep is intertwined with many miles of trails, rivers, lakes, wilderness areas, scenic drives and vistas, offering clean air and “big sky” starry nights, while numerous lodging options, including rustic cabins, campgrounds, or world class resorts, all lie within minutes of downtown.

Longer-term residents will recall that the pioneer architectural theme, evocative of late 19th century Western frontier origins, that is such a hallmark today was promoted in the early 70s in an effort to save commerce following the closure of the former logging town’s last lumber mill and fears (which obviously never materialized) of a highway bypass.

But the business district’s faux 1880s-style Western clapboard façades and wooden sidewalks are more than just a gimmick. Sisters has strong historic ranching roots and while the nostalgia for a less-complicated life, lived closer to the land, is an effective image, real working ranches still encircle the town with elk, llamas, cattle and horses.

Ostensibly wistful for a bygone era, Sisters is also increasingly comfortably New West- as exemplified by an upscale spa in the more recent Five Pines development and a raft of new galleries. It has even been nominated and selected by Budget Travel as one of America’s “Coolest Small Towns” in the category of under 10,000 residents.

Selection criteria targets communities with an edge that “stand out from the crowd” as drawing attention “because of the quality of life, arts, and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature.”
The final list of winners will be featured in the company magazine’s September 2010 issue.

Tourism and retail-related sectors have been prime drivers of the economy in the last few decades – with the Three Winds Shopping Center on the west side of town being one of the first developments of its type, and the $11 million Outlaw Station to the north – including the 43,500 square foot Ray’s Food Place grocery store – one of the latest.
By the mid-80s retail sales were a major source of employment, and the recent arrival of member-based, general merchandise specialist Bi-Mart has served to round out the retail scene.
A broader range of self-sufficient options has also been provided by, for example, the livery stable-style Three Creeks Brewing company and Sisters Movie House opening within the green-built Five Pines campus, which also houses a tranquilly-set lodge retreat – acclaimed as a favorite Oregon romantic getaway – Shibui Spa, athletic club, conference center and new bistro style Thyme restaurant.

An eclectic mix is a distinctive feature of the area, from the favorite rodeo enthusiast cowboy haunt of Bronco Billy’s Ranch Grill & Saloon, housed in the historic Hotel Sisters, to the marionberry milkshakes of Sno Cap Drive-in as well as fine dining options like the award-winning Jen’s Garden (whose owners are also behind Thyme) or the Northwest favorite Kokanee Café open seasonally in the vicinity of the pristine Metolius River in nearby Camp Sherman.

Established retail favorites like Leavitt’s Western Wear, “The Gallimaufry” (from the old French for hodgepodge) liquor, wine and specialty store and Angeline’s Bakery also rub shoulders with newer arrivals such as Mountain Coffee Company, BJ’s Old Fashioned Homemade Ice Cream and Blazin’ Saddles, a new bicycle shop and gathering place for riders of all levels.

But civic leaders have also built momentum in recent history towards enabling increased diversification and attempting to reduce the fluctuations that a reliance on more seasonal-related sectors like tourism can produce.

One of the landmark events in this direction was the opening of the 55-acre Sisters Industrial Park in 1991, broadening options for hosting small manufacturing companies in a traditional industrial setting with typical one-acre parcels.

Development progress was also boosted at the turn of the millennium when the City voted to install a municipal sewer system to replace the hitherto commonplace septic and drain field requirements.

And the scope for attracting more varied companies has expanded further in the last couple of years with the introduction of the Sun Ranch and Three Sisters business parks, spanning over 60 acres on the north end of town. Infrastructure is in place and a variety of ready-to-build lots are available in a zoning sub-district touting sustainable design criteria and allowing a wide range of uses, including live-work options.

On the residential front, much of Sisters’ in-town housing is within walking distance of amenities and aims to provide diverse choices for families and retirees. Options include an eclectic mix of older homes and redeveloping lots, apartments and townhomes, “new urban” tracts and traditional subdivisions with single-family homes.

Livability factors are seen as a big plus in attracting new residents and businesses, together with the town’s strong sense of community, friendliness and charm. The area’s schools also consistently rank among the top in the region and state for academics, the arts and athletics.

The school district takes a holistic approach, starting with kindergarten, and incorporates character education into the curriculum. An example of residents’ active involvement in education was highlighted in 1996 when, as the elementary school faced a problem of overcrowding and limited budget, the community responded by donating $500,000 in labor and materials to construct new classrooms.

Another illustration of Sisters’ familial spirit has been seen every third Friday during the cold winter months, when the owners of Sisters Coffee Company, a local café housed in a cozy cabin, and roasters of gourmet coffee since 1989, offer Free Soup Night. Guests provide a loaf of bread to share with fellow diners, and the house provides free soup and live music.

Despite suffering relative effects from the recession along with the rest of the region, economic chiefs believe Sisters is well placed to promote an environment conducive to business growth in a vibrant community filled with people committed to raising healthy families, while retaining a small town feel.

The hope is that Sisters will cement a place as a quietly emerging economic center for small and mid-sized companies in a broad range of business sectors – including retail, tourism, arts & culture, natural resources & agribusiness, light manufacturing & industrial, real estate & development and entrepreneurial – to engender a more well-balanced economic base.

Success stories regarding attracting dynamic companies offering excellent job opportunities include Metabolic Maintenance Products, which relocated from Southern California and produces a variety of vitamin supplements, including prescription amino acid dietary supplements for physicians across the country. On the technology front, the town has also welcomed the likes of Bird Gard, LLC, a world leader in electronic bird control systems.Read more about this companies on pages 23 and 25.

The population of Sisters is around 1,700 but the trade area runs to over 10,000 and business advocacy groups such as the Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce have also coordinated a successful effort to promote ‘Sisters Country’ – including Sisters, Camp Sherman, Suttle Lake, Aspen Lakes, Black Butte Ranch and Hoodoo – as a dynamic overall destination.  Marketing materials tout Sisters Country as “an expanse of majestic and inspiring natural beauty reaching from the town of Sisters to the panoramic Pacific Crest Trail.”

A more cohesive approach to economic development has emerged on a number of fronts, including the support of councilors and staff and the formation of the Sisters Business Action Retention Team (SBART) under the umbrella of the area Chamber of Commerce.

SBART is made up of local residents looking to assist in and foster economic development and coordinates with Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) as a “rapid response team” to help with interested business prospects.

Efforts have also been boosted recently by Sisters successfully obtaining inclusion in the Greater Redmond Enterprise Zone, which offers incentives to relocating companies, including property tax abatements.

SBART Chair Mac Hay said: “Everybody from the council and city staff to the chamber and EDCO has been pulling together and has proved phenomenal to work with.

“In Sisters and Central Oregon in general there is a perception of us being a tourist town that does not sustain as much in the way of year-round business. Tourism runs to about a seven-month season, and then it gets skinny.

“We are trying to help turn around that situation and smooth out the fluctuations by promoting the benefits of our area to create more family wage jobs, and much progress has been made even just in the last five years.

“I believe there is a lot of underemployment, which is also the story of small town America, but we have a very qualified labor pool willing to work and are looking to attract more companies that may choose to come here, particularly for the lifestyle benefits. Businesses that can operate from anywhere or produce using our workforce then ship are ideal candidates.”

Hay said SBART was comprised of people with a wide network of contacts and the group had met, contacted and marketed to over 40 companies in its relatively brief history. Currently, talks were at an advanced level with “six to eight seriously interested prospects”.

Hay added: “What makes us more successful is the ability to interact harmoniously with the local government representatives. What you get here is a community that is really cohesive and understanding and one that will work with you to achieve mutually beneficial goals.

“I think we offer a big attraction to people looking for that small town feel, who also appreciate a tight-knit community that is a diverse and creative group.”

One company that SBART assisted recently was the Slick’s Que Co. a pit-style eatery co-owned by barbeque industry specialist Roy Slicker, who opened a location in downtown Sisters after several years of running his own catering business.

Slicker, who is also VP of the Northwest Region National BBQ Association, said: “Our goal is to provide a place that takes people back to a time when things were a little simpler and prices more reasonable. This is not a fancy sit down restaurant, there are no waiters and the food is served Texas style
“Downtown Sisters is an awesome place to be. We hope that by providing a great family value, a simple menu and a fun environment, people will venture out and see many of the other fun and interesting shops located nearby.”

EDCO Executive Director Roger Lee added: “Sisters struggled for a while with not having much product in regards to accommodating manufacturing and technology type companies. But that is now well in place with projects like the newer mixed use business parks.

“The community also has a lot of appeal for potential relocation where quality of life is a primary driver and from an organizational perspective there has been a strengthening of focus regarding the economy.

“Groups like SBART and the council and chamber are doing a great job cultivating a grass roots effort to diversify the base.

“The small town feel of a tight-knit community with great amenities and school facilities has an appeal to certain sectors, while there is also interest from companies in the Willamette Valley which can still be close to the supply chain, as Sisters is the closest Central Oregon community to that corridor.

“There seems to be some traction right now, but it is important to understand that even with economic development policy unity it doesn’t produce results overnight and it takes time to incubate qualified leads.”

Five Pines developer Bill Willitts hailed the collective effort of various lodges and other destinations coming together to successfully market the ‘Sisters Country’ concept.

He added that unique properties in the area – such as the Five Pines lodge retreat – had experienced relatively stable occupancy rates compared to the dramatic drops seen elsewhere during the recent economic downturn.

He also welcomed the launch of the Sisters Movie House as a benefit to the community, particularly in reducing the need for people to drive back and forth to Bend during the winter for such amenities.
The Five Pines lodge is a real family affair for Willitts, with spouse Zoe running the spa, son Greg acting as operations manager and his sibling Riley in charge of information technology services.

Willitts and his wife have a passion for creating a health and wellness environment, and he has pursued another personally important issue as one of the driving forces behind the proposed McKenzie Meadow Village senior housing project, which would comprise both independent and assisted living units.

The retirement community project is slated to be located on 30 acres adjacent to Sisters High School, requiring annexation into the Urban Growth Boundary.

The plan is to provide for a lodge (the assisted care facility) and seven acres of open space that would include a public park and trails in close proximity to a range of amenities. Land would also be set aside for a future medical facility and senior center, with the balance of the property accommodating cottages and housing for 50+ living, including a proportion designated as affordable housing. In all there would be around 220 units in the final iteration.

Willitts shared the dream with veteran realtor and respected community member, the late Bill Reed, adding: “Bill had a vision that we are continuing, to remedy the fact that we are one of the few places without its own assisted living options.

“The goal is to meet economic needs across the board, from highly affordable to more intensive support, and the community understands the importance of this aim and is starting to embrace the objective.

“It has been a long process, but we look to be getting to the final annexation agreement stage and could be six months away from having the master plan in front of the city.

“We would like to see people have more options to stay in their community rather than having to move to another town to cater to senior living needs – particularly as Sisters has a distinct sense of place.”


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