Beyond cheese


Tillamook expands its tourism niche.

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Tillamook is a classic example of an Oregon community balancing traditional industry with modern economic-development strategies. The coastal town of 4,900 people, which already has a strong base in forestry and agriculture, is making big strides in promoting tourism. Now it looks like high tech is making inroads, bringing potential for jobs that pay enough to support the occasional splurge on a big weekend vacation.

Tillamook still has two employers in the wood-products industry: Stimson Lumber Company and Tillamook Lumber Company; both churn out millions of board feet of lumber a year. The largest single employer in the community, and the biggest contributor to the agricultural sector, is the Tillamook County Creamery Association, best known for their world-famous cheese. Besides the 100 families that are part of its farmer-owned dairy cooperative, the company employs around 450 people in Tillamook year-round and adds another 75 during the busy summer months.

The Tillamook Cheese Factory, which also has a popular visitor’s center, is a bridge between the worlds of agriculture and tourism, the fastest-growing segment of the town’s economy. And it’s an exciting time to be involved in tourism, according to Dan Biggs, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Tillamook County. In November of last year, Tillamook County passed a 10% room tax, which is expected to generate up to $1.5 million annually for a new tourism bureau.

“We will have the ability to market Tillamook more widely to a worldwide audience,” Biggs says, adding that the goal is to increase destination spending from $200 million to $400 million, the amount achieved by neighboring Lincoln and Clatsop counties.

Two projects that will benefit visitors as well as locals are moving along rapidly, says Marcus Hinz, principal executive of Kayak Tillamook and executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association. A group is wrapping up work on maps of the Tillamook County Water Trail, which people can use to explore the county’s five estuary systems. “We have one of the largest water trail systems in the state,” Hinz says. “These maps are going to make a big difference for the water-sports industry.”

The longer-term effort is construction of the Salmonberry Corridor, an 84-mile rails-to-trails project that will begin in the rural Washington County town of Banks, run through coastal towns such as Garibaldi and end at the Port of Tillamook Bay. A large portion of the path will stretch along the Southern Pacific rail line, which used to be used predominantly by timber companies and is now leased to the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad. Tourist spending along rails-to-trails projects in other parts of the country runs up to $8 million a year.

The trail has its detractors. People who live along the path worry about vandalism and noise. And a feasibility study commissioned by supporters says the trail could take up to 30 years to build, pushing its positive economic impact far into the future.

“This is a very large, expensive undertaking, and it will have to be chipped away at,” says Michele Bradley, general manager of Port of Tillamook Bay, which owns the rail line. “But there’s a lot of push behind it.” Bradley believes that help from supporters like Sen. Betsy Johnson and Cycle Oregon will speed up that process significantly.

The challenge of relying on tourism to bring employment is that those jobs tend to have lower wages than, say, the wood-products sector. But Tillamook is well positioned to attract another industry; specifically, aerospace companies that test and build unmanned vehicles, Biggs says. The community is one of only three places in Oregon where it is legal to fly unmanned vehicles, and the one closest to high-tech businesses in Hillsboro and Portland. The burg already has Near Space, a local company that makes and operates high-altitude balloons on behalf of NASA and the United States Department of Defense. If Biggs has his way, aerospace may become the fourth leg of Tillamook’s economic stool.

The room tax is a total game changer, in my opinion. Why do people come to your house? Because you invite them. For a long time, this county has not made a concerted effort to invite people. That’s why there’s a gap between tourism spending here and in our neighboring counties. The $200 million a year would make an enormous difference in this community.” —Marcus Hinz, Oregon Coast Visitors Association

The Tillamook Cheese Factory opened in 1909. The visitor’s center opened in 1969. Besides its main location in Tillamook, the Tillamook County Creamery Association has a cheese factory in Boardman and executive offices in Tigard. The company has 725 permanent employees and reported close to $600 million in sales in 2013. Source: Tillamook County Creamery Association

The Pacific Railway and Navigation Company (also referred to as the Punk, Rotten and Nasty for the difficulty in building and maintaining it) transported its first passenger from Hillsboro to Tillamook in 1911. It was sold to Southern Pacific in 1915. Passenger service ended in 1927, and the line was used for commercial purposes. Today only a 46-mile portion of the rail between Tillamook and Enright, which is leased to the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, is still in use. Source: Salmonberry Corridor Preliminary Feasibility Study, presented by Walker Macy in March 2013