The New Natural Resources

Open spaces and other environmental assets help attract jobs to Pendleton.

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Rural economies in Oregon depended for decades on natural resource extraction. Today legacy industries such as timber and fishing are struggling, even as new economy sectors, such as tech and medical services, are growing rapidly.  These new businesses continue a time-honored regional tradition: reliance on bountiful natural resources.

As an example, Oregon’s wide open skies have presented a new boon for Pendleton and its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test range. Since 2013, the eastern Oregon community has been one of only three places on the contiguous West Coast approved for UAS (drone) testing. Just three years later, economic development director and airport manager Steve Chrisman is able to rattle off an enviable list of companies that have come to town. Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation; Digital Harvest; Unmanned Aircraft International will be testing the Spanish-made Flyox there; Pacific Northwest National Laboratories conducts all its ArcticShark UAS trainings at the airport; and Yamaha Motor Corporation is leasing space for its pilotless helicopters.

The town owes much of this success to its location. “This is about as good as it gets when it comes to flying UASs,” Chrisman says. “There’s open air space, not much on the ground and not much in the sky. We’re one of the few places in the nation where they’re flying large unmanned vehicles out of a commercial airport. That’s not a common occurrence and we’re drawing a fair amount of attention because of that.”

Mountains, forests, bodies of water and various types of croplands all lie within Pendleton’s 14,000 square mile approved testing area. That means vehicles can be tested over a variety of terrains, flora and fauna.

“We’re one of the few places in the nation where they’re flying large unmanned vehicles out of a commercial airport. That’s not a common occurrence and we’re drawing a fair amount of attention because of that.”

Pendleton has also made significant investment in infrastructure designed to attract high-tech companies. “We’ve acquired and equipped a new 12,000 square foot mission control and innovation center that offers affordable incubator and accelerator space with 3D printers and a virtual reality lab,” says Chrisman. “We have a 10 gigabit fiber loop around the whole airport property and three gigabit outbound service, which is the fastest in the state.”

In addition, “a portion of our success is owed to the creature comforts that we’re able to offer,” Chrisman says. “A lot of flight test centers have been out in inhospitable places. People in the world of flight test are used to living under pretty austere conditions.”

pendleton downtown
The Pendleton Farmers Market opens each year in May and runs through mid-October,
selling everything from farm fresh meats and produce to handcrafted jewelry, furniture and ceramics.

Pendleton seems downright cosmopolitan by comparison. The downtown has a plethora of restaurants, breweries and a new distillery, music venues and weekly farmers market. There are biking trails and plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. These are all amenities that millennials in particular find appealing.

The combination is attracting other companies that can provide good jobs. The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians, one of the region’s largest employers, partnered with Accenture to develop Cayuse Technologies, which employs over 250 people and provides full lifecycle software development. Medical testing laboratory Interpath Labs, the largest independent lab in the Northwest, is headquartered in Pendleton. A growing number of telecommuters are locating there, attracted by a quieter way of life and the easy access to Portland (Boutique Air provides three daily round-trip flights from PDX to Pendleton for as low as $50 each way).  

The technology sector may never replace all of the jobs lost as legacy industries decline. But new businesses bring employment opportunities to the communities hardest hit by those changes. The key is finding new and sustainable ways to capitalize on the area’s natural resources.


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