Bend's true economic picture may surprise you

Bryce Ward, Ed Whitelaw and Philip Taylor /


In a 2001 USA TODAY article, Tom Kenworthy wrote, “It would be hard to find ... a community that better reflects the West’s emerging (economic) transition than Bend.” Ask Oregonians to pick the most rapidly growing urban economy in the state, and those who pay attention to such matters will name Bend. It is remarkable that a view can be so widely held — and so wrong.

One symptom of a strong urban economy is its resilience, its ability to recover from the local consequences of a national recession. In the most recent recession, Oregon’s employment peaked in February 2008. To test Bend’s resilience, we divided Bend’s recent employment — in December 2012 — by its employment in February 2008. The higher that ratio or its percentage equivalent, the more resilient Bend’s economy has been. We did the same for four other Oregon cities — Eugene, Medford and Portland. In December 2012, Corvallis’ employment was 100 percent of what it had been February 2008; Eugene’s, 90 percent; Medford’s, 93 percent; and Portland’s, 96 percent, while Bend’s was 87 percent.

Another symptom is a city’s gross metropolitan product (the urban equivalent of a country’s gross domestic product, or GDP). Corvallis’ 2010 GMP was 198 percent of its 2001 GMP; Eugene’s was 107 percent; Medford’s, 97 percent; and Portland’s, 132 percent, while Bend’s was 96 percent.

Yet another symptom is how the average earnings of a city’s residents have fared over time. In 1969, the Bend metropolitan area’s average earnings were 81 percent of the U.S. metropolitan average earnings. Bend’s peak since 1969 was 90 percent of the U.S. figure in 1977, and it hasn’t exceeded its 1969 percent of the U.S. figure since 1994. In 2011, it was 71 percent.

At this time each year, Bend’s economic wonks focus on short-run economic forecasts of measures that fluctuate within a year or two: housing starts, for example, and unemployment rates and interest rates. There’s a frustrating truth accompanying these measures: Bend can do nothing to improve them in the short term. National and international economic forces swamp anything locals might try to improve their lot in the short run.

In contrast to the annual fleeting frenzy focused on short-run measures, year in, year out, Bend’s residents — wonks and normal residents alike — enjoy or suffer directly a few of the direct indicators of their long-run standards of living: their earnings, for example, and their jobs and costs of living (primarily housing). They also enjoy or suffer other indicators of their standards of living, all lumped into their quality of life: local schools, for example; community health; the probability of getting mugged; forested mountains; clean streams and, of course, year-round outdoor recreation.

In contrast to the short-run measures of, say, housing starts, standards of living tend to change only over the long run; namely, decades or generations. More important, Bend’s residents could act today to improve their tomorrow. That is, there are actions Bend’s residents could take immediately that would improve their lot in the years and decades ahead.

And while the measures of improved, long-run well-being manifest themselves over decades, we needn’t wait decades to get progress reports.

The analysis we conducted for this progress report is straightforward. In only a short period of time and with readily available data, we assembled and reported three key symptoms: resilience, GMP and earnings. We don’t pretend what we’ve reported here is exhaustive or definitive. But the implications of what we’ve found are at least disturbing.

Bend isn’t doing nearly as well as its residents and most Oregonians have thought it’s been doing. We think it could be doing that well. The institutional challenge Bend faces, though, exceeds the analytical challenge.

Bend has capable institutions: the city of Bend, for example, and Economic Development for Central Oregon, the Bend Park & Recreation District, the city club and the rotary clubs. But developing a sustained and coordinated process focused on the underlying determinants of Bend’s standards of living is a formidable task. That said, Bend should do it.