Through boom or bust, Oregon small town rides theme to maintain identity
SISTERS, Ore. — The drive from Portland to Bend weaves through a few towns offering a chance to pause for food and gas on your way to somewhere else. Sisters is a good place to stop.
Arriving in the small town is a moment that just feels cheesy: Green Oregon forests end to reveal mountains in the distance. Leading to the view is Sisters’ pseudo-western downtown with wood-shingle roofs and business names in a font typically seen on Hollywood’s version of wanted posters.
As more people moved to Bend and Redmond in the early 2000s, roughly 22 miles away, the mayor of Sisters predicted the town’s future was probably set as a bedroom community — a place people could find housing to afford lives in larger cities.
Sisters did grow, from a population of 950 in 2000 to an estimated 2,500 people today. But that “bedroom” prediction isn’t the case.
“Bend has its own gravity, it’s the magnet. But then people find Sisters,” said Patrick Davenport, the town’s community development director.
While many western towns face a boom-or-bust, Sisters has been able to carve out its own identity. That didn’t happen by accident.
In the 1970s, Sisters was a logging town of less than 700 with a history of livestock. Like its neighbors, it served as a refill stop for people passing through. But roughly 10 miles out of town, developers had plans to convert a cattle ranch into a luxury resort, Black Butte Ranch. And guests would need places to eat, drink and shop.
Bill Smith, who was part of the team of developers with Brooks Resources, said they considered buying Sisters to make it an extension of the property.
“It was in the middle of nowhere with not much happening. We thought about that for a minute and decided it’s not our business buying towns,” Smith said. “But we were looking to keep Sisters from becoming a strip mall.”
The developers made the town a deal: They would pay for businesses to remodel the front of their shops to adopt a western look, a theme that supported Sisters’ annual rodeo.
Smith said the first business to take the offer was a cafe. Brooks paid the $5,000 makeover bill with the requirement the theme stuck for 10 years or else the cafe would return the money. A vet clinic and drug store followed suit.
After some success with more visitors in town, Sisters built the western character into its town charter. Logging was largely replaced with entertainment as more people required more retail and restaurants. And it’s continued from there.
Davenport said in 2017, Sisters added 100 new residential units and $75 million worth of new construction.
“In some ways, we’ve been a victim of our own success,” he said.
A tourist economy means good-paying jobs and careers are hard to come by. Because space is limited in Sisters and it costs more to get building supplies to town, housing is hard to find and development, residential or commercial, is expensive.
“We can’t compete with Bend or Redmond; we can’t be everything to everybody,” Davenport said. “You build in Sisters because your heart is telling you to. And those folks become future strong community members.”
Wade Underwood, who owns the town’s sole brewery Three Creeks Brewing, said more than half of his staff commute into Sisters because they can’t afford to live there.
But those who find a way to stay often do.
After years of bouncing from cities, Underwood and his wife are transplants who picked Sisters because it’s a small town.
“Sisters seemed like a good bet,” he said. “It’s small town America, the community tends to look out for one another. Some portions of the economy only make money because of tourists, but we survive by taking care of locals.”
Longtime resident Cris Converse said her mom moved to the area to ranch before the population hit 600. Converse remembers riding a horse through the fields of her mother’s property. She would steer through a slice of woods, past a house or two and up to the hitching post outside the bar.
It was the same path she took on the way home as she outraced the local cop on especially rowdy nights.
“Our western facades, they came from somewhere,” she said. “It’s still a local small town, a place where people volunteer at the school, a commitment and participation that keeps that character.”
Today, her mom’s property has been divided a bit. Some of the land became a new neighborhood with views of fields and the family’s 100-year-old dairy barn off in the distance. Converse said the barn could be converted into an artist space.
The scene does a pretty good job of displaying the mix of Sisters today.
There’s truth to the identity the town now relies on. And it’s what’s separated Sisters from the stories of towns either working to keep their people or fighting to maintain independence from their neighbor’s shadow.
(This story is part of the Montana Gap series produced collaboratively by Western Montana journalists, High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network. The series examines how small towns between Montana’s growing urban areas are overcoming challenges in order to improve their futures. Additional stories will publish in coming weeks.)