As goes Bend? Can Roanoke go?

BEND, Ore. (WSLS 10) - When I wanted to know about the history of Bend, Oregon, home of Deschutes brewery, I couldn't resist a tour given on Segways, those two-wheeled wonders that somehow stay upright using a series of gyros.

Few people this side of Einstein can understand how they manage to stay upright, but somehow they do.

After a brief lesson on how to maneuver on these wonders, a group of us took off through the streets and sidewalks of the city, bound for a riverside tour along the greenway.

As we left the parking lot, I was mindful of the "new" Bend all around us. This is the Bend that has sprung forth over the past 30 years.

The city's resurgence started in the late 80s in part because of the establishment of Deschutes as a then small craft brewery. Add in significant outdoor attractions and amenities, growing tech and manufacturing sectors and the Bend of today is a long ways away from the one that was dying when the timber industry declined, then disappeared.

Our tour was led by historian Vanessa Ivey with the Deschutes County Historical Society. "The buildings were torn down in 1987," she said of the mills that once lined both sides of the river. "And then this beautiful complex was starting to be established in 1999. With the Regal Cinema being one of the first buildings put in," she explained as we rolled past an area that today is dappled with shops, restaurants and high-end retail.

Our group also passed parks, greenways, an in-river kayak park and posh homes under construction.

Not far away, a building beneath three massive smokestacks is the heart of what is called the Old Mill District. Once a part of one of the mills, it is now home to an REI outdoor retail store. A perfect example of the cultural shift from mill town to "brew mountain town."

A brief history

It was not so long ago that lumber mills were situated on either side of the Deschutes River, which was jammed with logs starting with the timber boom in 1916 and not ending until the mid-80s.

"As the logs were milled they were deposited in the river down by Farewell Bend Park. They were floated up the stream to the mills and then they were distributed," explained Ivey.

The Roanoke Comparison

So when you think about it, Roanoke is a railroad town that lost the railroad. Bend is a lumber town, but lost the mills. There's a lot of similarities. Both cities have outdoor attractions.

Like Roanoke, Bend has a river flowing through the middle of it. Both have mountain bike trails only minutes from of downtown. Both have mountains surrounding them, though Bend's nearby Mount Bachelor is, well -- higher.

Roanoke has a growing craft beer culture with two breweries in the city limits, Bend with 22, is is a bit more mature.

Bend is ahead

Bend's amenities have made it and surrounding Deschutes County the fastest growing in Oregon and in 2015 the seventh fastest in the United States.

But all of that took time says Roger Lee, Executive Director of EDCO. "It's one of those 30-year overnight success stories," he said with a chuckle. "Where we had very hard times in the early 80s, when the last of the wood products companies shut down here."

Could Roanoke do what Bend did? Deschutes CEO Gary Fish seems to think so.

"In my experience there's two directions they go. Outdoor recreation and tech."

Fish knows the game from the perspective of someone who has been courted by communities who what his business. Lots of them. Of course he's also watched the evolution of Bend.

"You want to attract a clean business. The clean industry. We just came out of a phase where it was kind of the dirty industry, the heavy-industrial phase of our development. So we want to go we want to swing away from that. And we're going to attract all the tech companies the clean industry that doesn't leave a mark, but generates a lot of economic activity," he said, then added, "Well, there's only every other community in the country it's trying to do exactly that same thing."

Roanoke started "trying" about six years ago, with an intense effort to market itself as an outdoor destination. Arguably it's working. The recruitment of Deschutes is one of several recent success stories for the region.

Could Roanoke, trying to go from "trains to brains" in what's being called a "mountain metro" environment become to Virginia what Bend is to Oregon? It's too early to tell -- but Deschutes is coming because of the similarities they saw between their home city and the Star City, and they are making no bones about the fact they hope to bring a little bit of Bend, with them.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.