As you know, any time I visit a small town, I explore, ask questions and seek out what makes the town special.
My experience is Hood River had me thinking much of the way home. The town of about 7000 is a visual delight. It sits on the banks of the Columbia River, climbing up the bluff to the flats high above. Mount Hood looms in the background. The downtown has a self satisfied, prosperous look, with very few empty store fronts.
What set it off for me was how people answered the question, “What is there to do around here?”
I asked people in the local sandwich shop, a coffee place, a gas station, an RDI sponsored event, the hotel I stayed in, and a downtown store I stepped into.
To the person, the answer started with, “ Hood River is a great place to live.”
I’ve never had that happen before. Usually I get a laundry list of attractions and activities, or the usual “Nothing” from local young people anxious to leave.
Is this part of a Hood River Chamber training project? Did the local economic development council get to everyone in town?
I think not. The fact is that Hood River IS a great place to live. When I delved further into the subject with a local county commissioner, I learned that it’s far enough away from Portland NOT to be an easy commute – it’s not a bedroom community, it’s a real small town. But it’s close enough to attract Portlanders as visitors for dining, a weekend or a longer vacation, and to give them a regular taste of small town life.
These people build up a connection to Hood River, and when the time is right, they move. One resident told me she thought the population doubled when all the vacation homes were full!
What can other rural communities learn from Hood River?
It’s really true that your greatest economic development tool is your rural tourism industry. The decision to move to a small rural community is emotional, and it starts with the notion that the community is a great place to live. In my town, we’re working on a new economic development website, ComeHomeToDunsmuir.com. It has some of the usual economic development information, but it’s major purpose is to give people a sense of connection to our town and invite them to move here. Bookmark the site and come back. It’s being built by volunteers who are spending lots of their spare time to add new content. But the key to our revitalization success lies with our tourism industry – all the urban warriors who come up to fish and wish they didn’t have to leave.
So it makes economic development sense for rural communities to invest in their tourism industry. It also means supporting and maintaining a high quality of life for the locals who’re going to be asked the question, “What is there to do around here?”