Lincoln City finds its way to recovery through risk-taking, collaboration and building its tourism base.
Story by Jennifer Margulis // Photos by Adam Bacher
Blowing your own glass, or watching the experts, like glassblower Andrew Kogel, is one of Lincoln City’s largest tourist draws along with the Chinook Winds Casino Resort on the north side of town and the Tanger Outlet Center.
No one in Lincoln City drives an electric car. But if you walk through the Taft District on the south side of town you will pass four electric charging stations, which the city welcomes visitors to use for free. The installation of these stations was a proactive move. Even before Nissan released the Leaf, Lincoln City decided to become the first place on the Oregon Coast where an electric vehicle could be charged.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Lincoln City is not known for being “green.” Like much of the Oregon Coast, it’s a mostly working-class community of people who eke out a livelihood from the town’s main industry: tourism. But unlike other coastal towns, Lincoln City has steadily recovered from the economic downturn.
Risk taking, combined with a robust collaboration between city officials and business owners, and an understanding that sustainable economic viability is something that happens slowly have been three key factors that have helped Lincoln City become a vibrant community that attracts tourists even in the shoulder season.
Before 1965 Lincoln City didn’t exist. Instead, there were six separate areas strung along the winding Highway 101: Cutler City, Delake, Nelscott, Oceanlake, Wecoma Beach and Taft. Residents joke that their city is a boa constrictor that swallowed six chickens. Others prefer to compare it to a string of pearls with six gems. But even in the 1920s, before these towns were known as “Lincoln City,” the economy here has depended mostly, if not solely, on tourism.
Still, Lincoln City has little of the carnival aspect of Seaside and Newport: You won’t find bumper cars, wax museums or arcades near the beach. Residents remain surprised that Delake Bowl, which opened on May 31, 1938, still stands. Instead, Lincoln City is an eclectic place with Highway 101 as its Main Street where you’re as likely to meet a tattooed dad in the elevator wearing shorts in January as a well-heeled government administrator in a power suit. Even the population is hard to pinpoint. Although the government census estimates that the city’s inhabitants numbered 7,849 in 2005, city manager David Hawker explains that on any given day some 15,000 people are using the city’s services, such as water. One-third of the homes in Lincoln City are second homes, frequented by people who live elsewhere but visit on the weekends and during summer.
In 1999, city officials began a focus group with community stakeholders in the Taft District, a process that became an enduring model for the city’s urban planning.
“We were the first business to blow your own floats,” says Kelly Howard.
One of Lincoln City’s most successful tourist draws is the Jennifer L. Sears Glass Art Studio, where for $60 to $75 visitors can learn to blow their own glass balls. About 80,000 people visit the glass foundry every year, according to Sandy Pfaff, executive director of the Lincoln City Visitors Bureau and Convention Center. Nike has sent a group of employees to learn glass blowing as a team-building experience. Kelly Howard, a 30-something artist who runs the foundry with two other partners, saw a doubling of sales of glass products in August 2010.
But this success hasn’t been easy. In 2001 the city bought the building from Tom Litfin, whose business, Litfin Motors, went under after he agreed to sell his parking lot for the city to build a street. At first Litfin liked the idea of downsizing: He planned to have one auto bay and open a hamburger shop, advertising as “Hubcaps and Hamburgers” so people could grab a burger and watch mechanics repair cars. But the idea never took hold. Once the street was built, the lack of parking took customers away from his auto repair shop and Litfin asked the city to buy his building.
Once the building was acquired, city officials needed to figure out what to do with it. No one’s sure but most believe it was Kurt Olsen, the tall soft-spoken 59-year-old director of the Lincoln City Urban Renewal Agency, who first proposed to build a glass foundry. In 2000, Lincoln City had put 2,000 glass floats on the beach as a tourist draw. The glass floats had attracted lots of visitors but the idea was expensive; since there was no foundry in town they were buying the floats elsewhere.
Having a foundry, though, wasn’t as innovative as what came next. “We were the first business to blow your own floats,” says Howard. “Now all the other glass blowers on the Coast are doing it.”
Mixed-use projects have been part of the downtown plan. At the Driftwood Estates, all the condo units have been sold and all the commercial space has been leased.
Over the past 12 years, the glass foundry (built in 2005), the Community Center (upgraded to include a fitness facility and rock climbing wall in 2005), and Lincoln City’s skate park (first built in 1999 and renovated several times since) were all established with public money and private business people working together. Like many of the thriving places in Lincoln City, they represent a collaboration between business, government and motivated residents. In 1999, city officials held a focus group with community stakeholders in the Taft District as well as residents to devise a plan for redevelopment. Instead of lasting two hours, this focus group lasted for six months and became a model for urban planning for the city. “We all want a healthy community,” says Linda Roy, executive director of the Lincoln City Chamber of Commerce. “The collaboration makes it so we’re not all duplicating the same thing.”
When Portland-based developer Sergey Kashubin approached the city in 2007 for permission to build condominiums in the Oceanlake district in the center of town, the area he wanted to develop had been identified for commercial use. Olsen suggested they do both. The city would loan Kashubin $50,000 at no interest and fund a plan redesign if he agreed to lift the building 10 feet to put commercial space on the ground floor with residential units above. The result was the Driftwood Estates on NW 15th Street. Kashubin paid back the loan early and the two commercial units sold first, in 2008, one to a real estate agency and one to a Portland-based artist. The larger vision is to make the downtown Oceanlake district, which has the majority of retail stores as well as a movie theater and several eateries, more pedestrian friendly. With beach access at the end of the street, the mixed use has encouraged more tourism beyond the beach, bringing Highway 101 traffic into the district.
Dubbed the gnarliest park in the U.S., Lincoln City’s state-of-the-art skate park was built by local teens.
Another successful project that has brought visitors beyond the beach — as well as national acclaim to the city — is Lincoln City’s state-of-the-art skate park. In 1999 some young men had a vision for a skate park. Olsen and his staff were dismissive; the youngsters wanted to build it themselves. But when they persisted, Olsen and Ron Ploger, director of parks and recreation, brainstormed how they could make it happen.
The city hired the five young men as summer workers. The teens worked tirelessly, redesigning the original plan (which had been farmed out to a design firm and was, in their words, “horrible”) and pouring the concrete.
Two years later they built an expansion, including a retro swimming pool. Thrasher Magazine ran a cover story calling the park “America’s gnarliest.” Out of that collaboration more business was born. Two of the young men founded Dreamland Skateparks, which has built more than 15 skate parks around the country and one in Belgium. The park attracts avid skaters from around the state and generates income for the city, which rents the park to both nonprofits and commercial groups.
Lori Hollingsworth, mayor of Lincoln City for eight years, is credited with bringing livability and green initiatives (like a new LEED-certified library) to town.
Lori Hollingsworth, who was mayor for eight years, explains that where the start-up money comes from is not as important as the way all the players in Lincoln City have worked together to make things happen. The focus groups keep the community involved. The city council is open to unusual ideas — like starting a culinary center in a city that previously had not been thought of as a foodie destination.
In the past eight years more than 20 projects that cost more than $100,000 have been generated which saw the city collaborating with a variety of partners, including a new childcare center, affordable housing, an upgraded bus system, and an incubator program to provide reduced rent to start-up businesses.
Still, Hollingsworth believes much of the credit goes to city manager David Hawker. “He’s the man with broad shoulders who takes risk and does a lot of heavy lifting,” Hollingsworth says. “He’s not a dynamic character, he just gets the job done. Some people work by sheer personality and charisma. That’s not him. He’s just smart.”
Hawker is quick to acknowledge that Lincoln City is doing well. He says the city’s infrastructure has been steadily improving, whereas in cities across the country basic and vital services are declining. Tourism is generally measured by how many lodging dollars are generated and those dollars have increased in Lincoln City by 23% in the last six years. In 2010, the gross room revenue was $46 million. But Hawker’s not interested in taking credit. “The community, the city council, and the city management have been willing to take some risk, and do things that aren’t a given,” Hawker says. “And we’ve been pretty successful. I think that’s what’s different about Lincoln City. We’re unusual for a community this small.”
“Our customer counts have been going up yearly,” says Peggy Preisz, a manager at Mo’s restaurant.
No one in Lincoln City expects exponential growth. The Culinary Center, which hosts cooking classes ($50 will get you a three-hour class, wine and a meal), jambalaya cook-offs and chowder contests, brought more than 3,000 people to town last year. Yet so far this business is only grossing enough to cover costs and pay the head cook.
Almost every building in the Taft area where the glass foundry is located has been renovated over the past 15 years, making it one of the city’s biggest draws beyond the beach. The city has put $7 million into the area and given more than a dozen businesses zero-interest loans (most of these are $50,000 with a 10-year payback). What used to be a place of rundown buildings with rotting windows battered by the sea air, pitted sidewalks and an old crab pit now boasts pedestrian-friendly streets with a copper and brass archway decorated with a larger-than-life Dungeness crab crafted with so much detail that its mammoth pincers can open. There’s a neon-pink ice cream store, Eleanor’s Undertow, Once in a Blue Moon Gallery and just east of Mo’s Restaurant is Tiki’s, a shell shop selling knickknacks and beach food. “It’s drawing tourists but there’s still room for growth,” says Hollingsworth. “It’s budding.”
Hawker believes continuing to build attractions beyond the beach and luring young retired boomers, who will bring their time, expertise and capital to town, are the two best ways to grow the city’s economy. City officials are working to better brand Lincoln City as not only a coastal vacation spot but a place to try new things. They are hoping to see more business development on and off Highway 101 and to continue to find ways to bring visitors in the off-season.
No one can predict whether electric cars will be lining up to use the charging stations. But city administrators and locals aren’t worried. It’s slow, sustainable growth — and cooperation rather than cutthroat competition — that this city is after.
“We want to succeed,” says Hawker, flashing a rare smile. “We want to be the No. 1 city on the Oregon Coast.”
Lincoln City by the numbers
Business growth in Lincoln City is measured primarily with lodging industry numbers because the lodging industry is one of Lincoln City’s biggest employers. Hotel, motel and vacation room rentals for December 2010 were $1.9 million, up 12.4% over December 2009.
Despite the economic difficulties faced by the state and Lincoln County, the average wage in Lincoln City has risen 17% from $22,505 in 2003 to $26,290 in 2009, the most recent year for which the state has statistics. Within the hospitality industry alone, the average wage has risen 12% from $19,297 to $21,706 over the same period. Lincoln County added about 1,000 jobs during that time, though the city’s job growth has been basically flat since 2003. (See chart below.)
Total payroll dollars grew from $116 million in 2003 to $135 million in 2009, though still not back to peak levels of 2008. (See chart below.)
“Most of our businesses outside of the lodging industry are small businesses,” says Linda Roy, executive director of the Lincoln City Chamber of Commerce. “But I have noticed that our empty storefronts are now being filled. It’s slow going but a tanning salon just opened, a rock store that will sell agates is opening soon, and there’s a café/bistro going in on the main highway.” Tourism has bounced back, with a 2% increase in gross lodging receipts in 2010 (despite the rainy spring and summer), bringing the Lincoln City economy back to pre-recession levels.