They visited; they saw; they moved to Bend

The region, lifestyle serve as economic development tools

By Joseph Ditzler / The Bulletin / @josefditzler

A fish taco hooked Scott Oliphant.

For Jim O’Leary, it started with a backstage pass to a Steve Miller concert.

Matt de Gruyter followed his spouse, Cierra, from Southern California to the place she calls home.

All three belong to that group of newcomers for whom one visit to Bend sold them on living here. Some also bring their businesses with them, while others start one.

“Rarely does a week go by that we don’t talk to somebody who’s visiting here and who doesn’t realize it’s an amazing place to live,” said Doug La Placa, president and CEO of Visit Bend, the city tourism promotion agency.

The migration of people to the city slowed during the economic downturn that began with the recession of 2007-09, but it never stopped. Bend grew from 77,000 in 2000 to an estimated 81,000 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2010 and 2013, Bend’s population grew by an estimated 6 percent, according to Census data. Oregon’s grew just 2.6 percent in the same period.

In-migration reshaped Bend in the period leading up to the housing market crash that marked the recession onset, said University of Oregon economics professor Tim Duy, senior director of the Oregon Economic Forum. It continues as an important trend as the economy recovers. Retirees who were financially weakened by the recession may be dissuaded from moving to Bend, but the city continues to attract working-age adults willing to accept certain risks in order to build wealth.

“It’s what sustained (Deschutes County) for a long time, a steady flow of in-migration,” Duy said.

Not surprisingly, of all states except Oregon, California supplied the bulk of Bend newcomers, an estimated 1,694, between 2007 and 2011, according to the Census Bureau. Washington and Idaho supplied 681 and 307, respectively. From fourth-place Texas came 274.

The lure is calculated, at least partly. The city of Bend in 2009 first allocated $16,000 on a marketing plan designed to attract visitors who express interest in relocating not only their homes but their businesses, too.

Visitors that respond to a Visit Bend website survey — or find the page called Move My Business — may request a “relocation package” of information from the city.

Carolyn Eagan, Bend business advocate, said she fielded 65 requests in 2013, about one per week. In July, that number jumped to three per week.

Bend attracted outsiders at the deepest part of the recession, she said.

“We had the highest unemployment rate of any metro (area) in the state, and people were still coming,” Eagan said.

It’s not Orange County

De Gruyter, 31, said he never took the online survey or responded to an ad. He was sold on his first time in town, a year ago, by the August sunlight, the mountain scenery and the laid-back, but not too laid-back, attitude.

“After being here all of four or five hours, I could picture this as a place where I could raise my kids,” he said.

The de Gruyters relocated from Orange County, California, with their two children, ages 7 and 3, in order to start a business, Next Level Burger, which they opened in July in the Century Center on SW 14th Street. Cierra de Gruyter lived in the Bend and Redmond areas until her late teens, when her family moved to Colorado, her husband said.

“No matter where we were — Denver, Dallas, Southern California — home (for her) conjured up images of Bend and Central Oregon,” de Gruyter said.

After surveying the market potential in Portland, Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado, de Gruyter, a former manager at a brokerage firm, agreed with his wife to set up shop in Bend. The business concept, a vegetarian burger restaurant, fit the Bend lifestyle, which overcame his reservations over the city’s relatively small size, de Gruyter said. Their embrace of outdoor activities, from rock climbing to mountain biking, factored into their decision, he said.

“From an overarching happiness standpoint, to go out in nature, work your body hard and breathe that fresh air, we don’t get much of that in Southern California,” he said.

From rock concert to resident

Pilot Jim O’Leary, 51, flies for Net Jets, a worldwide company that operates chartered aircraft, among other services. In July 2010, O’Leary, who lived with his wife in San Diego at the time, and his co-pilot flew rock musician Steve Miller to Bend for a concert at the Les Schwab Amphitheater.

O’Leary expected to drop off his passenger and leave that night, but Miller handed him his cellphone number and an invitation to join him backstage. O’Leary scored a hard-to-find motel room, gave the rock star a call and enjoyed the show.

As a college student from Eastern Washington in 1984, O’Leary had briefly volunteered with the Bend Endurance Academy in exchange for some free skiing on Mt. Bachelor. He returned in 2010 to find the city had changed drastically. He, too, got the Bend bug.

“We were not really considering moving out of state,” said Janet O’Leary, 43, like her husband an avid triathlete. “He said jokingly, ‘We should move to Bend.’ … He kept putting these little reminders in my head.”

Three years later, the pair were back in town looking for homes. By October, they had moved to the west side. Janet O’Leary continues to work from home as an event planner. Jim O’Leary said his commute to work — he flies from Redmond to his assigned aircraft and destination — is a bit longer, but he counts the minutes until he’s back home. The couple said they have no regrets about the move.

“We’re very active; we run, we bike, we do triathlons,” Janet O’Leary said. “Initially, it was ‘Look at the trails we can go running on.’ We ski, too, and having Mt. Bachelor right on the doorstep was a huge draw. We have a 6-year-old, and for him, we were looking to make this move to find a sense of community.”

A lost key

Adventure brought Scott Oliphant, now 37, to Bend the first time six summers ago. The then-Texas resident and an old high school buddy, Josh Norris, of Corvallis, now an instructor at Oregon State University and director of its Adventure Leadership Institute, embarked on an excursion through the Cascade Mountains aboard dual-sport motorcycles from Santiam Pass to the California border. Somewhere close to the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway, first-time rider Oliphant dropped his ignition key into the sandy trail.

“We sifted sand through our fingers for 45 minutes before we found it,” Norris said. Afterward, he suggested dropping into Bend for a respite. He knew a place in town from his days as a climbing guide at Smith Rock.

“We could jump on this highway, Century Drive, and ride this in. I know right where this dumps us out, right at this place with some great fish tacos and PBRs,” Norris said. “It was literally like an oasis.”

Oliphant had never been in Bend before that trip to Parrilla Grill. His wife, Shelby Oliphant, 34, picked up the story: Scott asked him, “What is this town? This is a really cool town.” Norris replied: “This is Bend. I’d live here if I could.”

The couple had been “itching to leave Austin for a few years,” Shelby said. “We needed a place to go.”

The Oliphants checked out Bend on subsequent vacation trips, while Scott Oliphant simultaneously grew his business, a computer-animation firm called Impossible Engine, to six employees in Austin and clients nationwide. They first considered moving to Portland, but Shelby disdained the rainy weather. The same characteristics that drew the O’Learys and the de Gruyters summoned the Oliphants: access to the outdoors; warm, dry weather; a sense of community lost in bigger cities.

“So we decided just to do it,” Scott Oliphant said. “We figured the worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t work out and we come back with a bunch of amazing pictures and memories and we go back to Austin.”

The couple, with their two sons, ages 5 and 2, in April moved to the west side. In September, she plans to open a store, Cosas NW, at 115 NW Minnesota Ave., featuring handcrafted furniture and decorative art; he is considering moving his business and employees to Bend. He put them up in town for a July weekend, to check the place out, he said.

“We got to take them canoeing, did all the stuff that we love doing here, showed them all the things that we love about the city,” Scott said. “I think they had a really good time. We got to eat out a lot.”

The Oliphants believe they can conduct business from, or in, Bend. His growing firm found clients like Twitter far from Austin, relieving him of the need to stay rooted in the city. She looks to a resurgent housing market to bolster her business in handcrafted home furnishings and artwork from Central America. She picks out the pieces herself on frequent buying trips.

“I know no one else is carrying the things I’m carrying here in Bend,” Shelby Oliphant said. “I think we’ll do real well.”

All three families illustrate tendencies that Eagan said she finds among new arrivals to Bend. Many are starting second careers, like the de Gruyters, or engineering their work lives to accommodate a move, like the Oliphants.

Others visited in their youth, like Jim O’Leary, and returned to find a renewed affinity for the place. All said, lifestyle, particularly access to the outdoors and a raft of different activities, placed high on their lists of reasons to move to Bend.

“The things we talked about in theory,” said Jim O’Leary, “this place has in reality.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com