Following the Leaders


Three Oregon leaders weigh in on tourism, public policy and heeding the call to serve.

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Three Oregon leaders weigh in on tourism, public policy and heeding the call to serve

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Wendy Higgins

An innkeeper and two restaurant owners walk into a government building …

No need to brace for a groan-worthy punch line — across Oregon, this scenario is playing out in all earnestness: travel and tourism leaders arriving at the doorsteps of city halls and the Capitol Building, eager to burnish the state’s rising status as a world-class vacation destination.

Momentum is definitely on their side: Tourism is now a $10.3 billion industry in Oregon, directly supporting more than 100,000 jobs, according to Travel Oregon. This growth can offer cities a vital bridge across deep economic rifts cloven by contracting heritage industries like logging and fishing — if the right leadership emerges to point the way.

Meet three Oregonians who have risen to the challenge and are growing their cities at the convergence of hospitality, tourism and smart public policy.

Wendy Higgins, Innkeeper at the Ocean Lodge and Cannon Beach City Councilor: Growth Through Giving Back

Wendy Higgins thinks a lot about legacies: the ones a community leader inherits and the ones she’ll leave behind when she goes.

“We’re here to serve our community, but we’ve got to hand things off,” she says. “So that’s my passion now: legacy. How do we train up this next generation?”

Higgins has always steered her ship by the stars of faith and service. These compasses have served her well during a decade and a half running an iconic Oregon inn, and seven years back, they guided her straight onto the Cannon Beach City Council.

Tourism-reliant Cannon Beach had weathered the economic downturn, but Higgins wanted hospitality to have a hand in shaping the city’s long-term growth. So she ran, was elected and helped create the Cannon Beach Tourism and Arts Fund, which supports off-season tourism-and-arts events, drawing visitors throughout the slow winter months.

Higgins mentors future leaders because she knows it’s an enormously satisfying, enormously challenging calling: “Every time I step into a position bigger than myself, I love the growth that comes out of it,” she says. “It stretches me, sometimes to the limit, but it’s good because I’d rather be doing that than being complacent.”

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Joe Benetti, Owner of Benetti’s Italian Restaurant, Former Coos Bay City Councilor and Mayor: 

Keep Things Fresh

A coastal city’s fortunes can shift with the wind, but Joe Benetti knows that strong leadership enables a community to stay the course through uncertain times.

Benetti and his wife relocated to a booming Coos Bay 36 years back. They opened an Italian deli/restaurant, then watched as Big Timber packed up and left town, taking with it a once-thriving commercial core.

“I felt there needed to be some development downtown and was talking to the city manager about it,” Benetti recalls. “I told him, ‘We need to do this, we need to do that.’ And he said, ‘No, you need to do something.’”

Benetti saw the city’s waterfront as a prime asset, so he ran for city council, campaigning on promises to develop a seedy section of it. He won, and in went a boardwalk and docks.

It was the first of countless growth initiatives driven by Benetti over 12 years on the council, then three terms as mayor. His restaurant is still open, and Benetti sits on a long list of committees, boards and task forces to this day. Good leaders always make room for the next wave of thinkers, he says: “Fresh new ideas are important. When I was on [the council], it was time for my fresh new ideas. But it’s important with leadership, too, to listen to others.”

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Kevin Cameron, CEO of Cafe Today Restaurants and Catering, former State Representative and Marion County Commissioner: Who Knows You?

Some leaders do their best work from the back of the house — Kevin Cameron knows this well.

“My job isn’t to get awards; my job is to help others be the best they can be,” he says. “It’s a servant-leadership model. I get my juice, my energy, from seeing people growing.”

Cameron honed this philosophy over decades in the restaurant business. He started as a dishwasher and went on to oversee a string of thriving West Coast chains before settling in Salem, where he and his wife started their own business. In those years, Cameron would sometimes testify on hospitality and tourism-related issues at the Capitol, and the call to serve began to stir.

In 2004 Cameron was sworn into the Oregon House of Representatives, and he was appointed Marion County Commissioner in 2014.

Tourism has filled economic gaps in Marion County, too, and Cameron has supported the efforts by advocating for local and statewide tourism initiatives that funnel money right back into the industry, ensuring long-haul growth.

Whether running restaurants or representing constituents, he says, a favorable review from the court of public opinion is key: “I used to think it’s who you know that matters…but it’s who knows you and what they know about you that matters. Do they see you as a positive influence in community life or a negative one?”