By Mark Buckley

The new whitewater park in Bend is unprecedented in the Pacific Northwest. Rumblings debate this allocation of scarce financial and natural resources. Aren’t there growing potholes or ratty textbooks that would be better targets for taxpayers and donors?

But the whitewater park is part of a larger trend in public investment that recognizes the critical complement government and philanthropy can play in creating culture and quality of life. And when these grow and flourish, the economy comes along as well.

Bend attracts “amenity migrants” who want to live the happiest and healthiest lifestyle they can. Oregon’s population has more than doubled in the last 50 years. During this period timber-related employment has contracted by two-thirds, while manufacturing and technology now dominate.

During this time the state population has flip-flopped from majority rural to now over 80 percent urban. Oregon now requires a well-educated and skilled workforce whose human capital must compete globally. Oregon’s advantage in attracting innovative and productive people during this technological transformation is quality of life. If someone wants an 80-hour workweek, this isn’t the top of the list. If you want clean air, clean water and tall trees for your family, you come here.

This trend drives up some prices, but the market compensates those who would rather take the money and leave Bend to those who cherish it. There are plenty of dirt-cheap houses in fading communities, for obvious reasons.

While Portland epitomizes this emphasis on quality of life among major cities, Bend is the state’s fullest realization of a community’s natural assets. One of the earliest lessons from economics is that you invest in your comparative advantages. Spare time and travel opportunities become increasingly scarce in vigorous economies, so close-to-home and predictable usually trump exotic, remote and ephemeral.

Bend Parks and Recreation District has done a noteworthy job developing trails and parks in town. They probably can’t bring in the snow of Mt. Bachelor to the rare skiable lines on Pilot Butte. But they, along with the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, seized a rare and necessary public safety opportunity to bring whitewater recreation within city limits in a controllable, predictable and exciting way.

While new to the Pacific Northwest, whitewater parks are successfully operating across the country. Individual parks see hundreds of thousands of users annually and orders of magnitude more spectators. In Bend the floater’s channel means a larger factor will be participants. This means millions of likely visits here each year.

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department surveys find that education and income levels for nonmotorized boaters exceed state averages. Spectators work and shop too. For some, this activity growth is just congestion and infrastructure wear. But the counter is to discourage community and economic vitality. Shrinking towns in Oregon are having harder times maintaining basic services than we are here.

Outdoor recreation is no longer a novel luxury; it’s a driver for economic development in Oregon. OPRD’s statewide survey found over 90 percent of Oregonians participate in outdoor recreation, and overall it’s growing. It involves billions of dollars in annual spending and more importantly drives decisions to live in Oregon. Oregon businesses know they can attract and keep some of the most desirable job candidates, especially in places like Bend. Healthy economies and communities can afford road improvements and new classrooms.

Outdoor recreation is one of the only countervailing forces to obesity and general declining public health. An unhealthy population is bad for a community in countless ways. As parents worry about their children relying on virtual or even chemical stimuli, healthy, visible and accessible options become more important. Government’s central role, going back to the words of Adam Smith, is to provide those public goods that support broad social benefits that markets fail to capture.

The new whitewater park is an important example of civic investment that generates not only economic multipliers, but more importantly community multipliers.

— Mark Buckley is an economist and partner with ECONorthwest, an economics consulting firm. He lives in Bend.

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