After the eclipse: Madras takes leisurely approach to growth

A new Daimler track and expanding businesses keep development here moving, slowly.  

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News reports leading up to the August 21st solar eclipse were apocalyptic. Word around Madras,population 6,729, was that thousands of world travelers would descend on this Central Oregon community, guzzling all of the city’s water and gasoline, clogging its roads and overwhelming businesses.

None of that came to pass.

“It was like: ‘okay, that wasn’t too bad,’” said Nick Snead, Madras’ community development director. “It showed large events like that can occur within the city.”

Rick Molitor, owner of three-year old New Basin Distilling Company, a two-man operation, said the more than 100,000 visitors didn’t buy as much as businesses expected. Nevertheless, the lunar event helped the city strategize for similar events in the future.

“Vendors didn’t have the showing they wanted because people already came prepared with supplies,” Molitor said. “But the business community had to come together to promote and plan for this.”

More than 100,000 people descended on Madras to watch the eclipse.

Thousands of people drive through Madras on Highway 97 each year. One of the community’s biggest challenges, community leaders said, is getting those drivers to stop before they plough through to Bend.

“We’re the drive through city on the way to Bend,” said Molitor. “But we have great outdoor activities here.”

Those outdoor amenities include views of the Deschutes River and surrounding canyons, as well as boating, fishing, and kayaking on Lake Billy Chinook.

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The city’s relationship with the Warm Springs tribe could also drive growth, Molitor says. The tribe is building a major truck stop that Molitor thinks will increase visitor traffic.

Unlike Portland or other major metros, Madras lacks a single growth plan, relying instead on an opportunistic approach and a patchwork of plans from various agencies.

“It’s just amazing how many plans we have,” Snead said. “It’s just crazy. We don’t have one document that says: ‘We want this.’”

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A view of Lake Billy Chinook near Madras / Ian Poellet

The two biggest companies driving growth in Madras are Daimler Trucks North America and Bright Wood, a wood component manufacturer.

In May 2017, Daimler opened its $18.7 million High Desert Proving Grounds, a test track that subjects trucks to some of the worst roads and weather in the state.

Daimler will spend around $250,000 a year on labor and support services in Madras, Snead said. Daimler recently tested its semi-autonomous driving technology on the track.

Michael Leslie, owner of Howling Boy Tech, has already seen some work from Daimler. His company helped set up computer workstations for the new track.

Bright Wood is doubling its 25,000 square-foot facility, which will add 12 new jobs in Madras.

New businesses, Leslie said, can benefit from the lack of competition in Madras, affordable land and support from a few key family businesses.

“There’s a lot of demand, but not a lot of overlapping businesses,” he said.

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Snead sees the airport and the surrounding industrial area as one of the city’s greatest economic development assets. In 2014 the airport added the Erickson Aircraft Collection museum, a boon for tourism.

“It’s a little bit of a renaissance,” Molitor said. “We’re getting our foot in the door with economic development.”

Snead said Madras’ annual growth rate hovers around two percent annually. 

“Some cities have a very difficult time saying no [to new economic development projects],” he said. “Quite honestly, we’re not in a position to say no.”

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A key focus for city planners is generating new housing starts. There is plenty of cheap land in Madras, but not enough skilled labor needed to develop buildable lots.

Half of the skilled tradespeople — drywallers, electricians, plumbers — who lived in Central Oregon in 2007 have disappeared, Snead said. The dwindling numbers could be due to lack of training for skilled trades. The ones who stuck around are charging 20% to 30% more for the same services. Most live in Bend, and are unwilling to make the trip to Madras.

Madras Livestock Auction Market 01Historic livestock auction building in Madras

The problem affects workforce and market rate housing alike, Snead said. Planners are working on evaluating regulations, permits and development fees, and attracting skilled labor at a reasonable cost.

Snead said he is always keeping an eye out for unexpected economic opportunities.

“Three years ago, if someone said Daimler is coming to Madras, I’d say, really?”