Betty Roppe steers Prineville into the future.
If you come into Prineville from the west, it’s easy to imagine the road as a line between what was and what could be. There, off Highway 26 about 35 miles northeast of Bend, Central Oregon’s oldest town stretches through the palm of a georgic canyon like a fuzzy, green heart line.
In its deeper, timeless folds you find the defunct timber mills and an aging downtown. But up on the rim—call it the realm of the new—you’ll find the mega-dollar data centers that churn through Facebook posts and iCloud docs, pumping cash into town.
The leader of this town, you think, would run on the firmware of a 2.0 pioneer. For the past 11 years, first as a city councilor and since 2010 as mayor, Betty Roppe has been that person with that very programming.
As Prineville faces enormous changes from a down-on-its-luck timber and tire town to a hub of digital connectivity, Roppe has successfully done what no other mayor here has had the chance to do: be an old-school interface between hardcore cowboys, soft-palmed engineers and steadfast environmentalists as the town navigates the very modern pivot points that could either cut it a break or just break it more.
“The changes she’s witnessing, to me, are just fascinating,” says Scott Aycock, a community economic development manager with the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council. “The town is transitioning, and she’s right in the middle of it.”
So far all signs seem to suggest Roppe is winning.
Facebook announced plans in September to build Prineville’s biggest data center yet, the company’s third, which will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars more into city coffers. Commercial investments in city businesses topped $130 million last year, a full $105 million more than the previous year. Home prices are creeping up; unemployment is dropping.
But what’s most remarkable here is that the lady at the helm of an aging town with almost zero tech culture and limited youthful entrepreneurial gusto has managed the reins so deftly by being a tough-love grandmother who’ll kiss you when you’re good and whoop your hiney when you aren’t.
Indeed, Roppe, who has 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, is one of Oregon’s oldest mayors at 76.
“I don’t know where she gets the energy,” says Kim Bentley, executive coordinator for the Oregon Mayors Association, which awarded Roppe a leadership award in August. “Mayor Roppe is not just filling a seat and adding it to her resumé.”
That resumé includes working in the regional health care industry for 28 years before getting into Prineville politics in 2004. “I was just going to retire and didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, when I saw an ad that Prineville needed a councilor,” she says. “I applied and didn’t get it, so I ran in the next election and won.”
In 2010 she won the mayorship with 57% of the vote. Since then she has worked huge deals in Washington to secure critical water rights from Prineville Reservoir that could attract more manufacturing jobs, and she helped the city to save tens of millions of dollars on a water-treatment facility that uses wetlands instead of artificial filtration systems.
She has reintroduced tens of thousands of steelhead fry to the Crooked River and is working on plans for new parks and a sporting center.
In August Gov. Kate Brown’s office took note of her work and asked Roppe to serve on the powerful Energy Facility Siting Council, which decides how and where Oregon should get its electricity, a position Roppe applied for and won.
So far the committee has met in Coos Bay to discuss rulemaking and sage-grouse protection programs. The new challenge excites her. “It’s like learning a new language,” Roppe says. “The reading material alone is enormous.”
All the while, Roppe conducts business with an affable flair. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg touched down on that rim in 2011 to unveil the first of his three Prineville data centers, this feisty line dancer with dainty yellow sandals and nickel-dust hair took him in her arms and plopped a kiss right on his boyish cheek.
It was a remarkable moment for a woman whose parents raised her to stay at home. Betty Jean Scott, or BJ as some friends call her, was born in 1939 in North Dakota to a railroad foreman father and a homemaker mother.
When Roppe was 3, the family moved to Seneca. “My parents were fairly open minded but very protective,” she says. “My mother had to figure out a lot of things on her own. She was incredibly sheltered and wanted things to be different for her children.”
The Scotts remained a family forged on faith, obedience and sweat, but respect was the operative theme. She logged two years of sociology courses in Corvallis before her parents “summoned” her home. If Roppe was ever resentful about not earning a degree, she’s well over it now. “I try to see the good in people,” says Roppe, whose husband, Jim, is a retired manager of Western Bank (now Chase). “They taught me we all have a right to an opinion.”
Friends and colleagues say that mind-set makes Roppe an effective leader, though her take-charge personality can catch others off guard. “If she were in this room, she’d be the mayor of this room,” says a local government staffer who has worked with Roppe for years and requested anonymity to preserve their professional relationship.
“A lot of people do like that about her.” When the city was looking for ways to use the surrounding national forests as an economic resource — from timber harvesting to recreation — Roppe, which rhymes with “soapy,” co-founded a collaborative group with dozens of competing interests to come up with ideas on how to manage the public lands. “I’m a big believer in collaboration,” says Roppe, who calls herself a fiscal conservative, a social liberal and an environmentalist, but not an “extreme one.” “It just works.”
For the first time in a while, Prineville has some decent money to work with. Even when it didn’t, things weren’t dire. In fact, the city’s budget has been so neatly presentable and efficiently balanced, at $30.3 million for fiscal year 2016 with nine of 11 operating accounts fully funded, that it has won awards from the Government Finance Officers Association nine years in a row.
As for the future, Roppe would like to see more data centers move in, although she’s wary of putting all of Prineville’s economic eggs into those gleaming virtual baskets. “The data centers have done a lot for our schools, and we need to keep them here,” she says. “We just need to use common sense.”
In the meantime, Roppe keeps her priorities on a sheet of paper that includes business-boosting items like revitalizing downtown; helping a mill, Woodgrain Millwork, get up to capacity; and securing a helicopter base at the airport. It’s a list that would grow until she dies, which she would happily do in office as long as she’s still being effective, she says.
“My only regret is that I didn’t get involved earlier,” Roppe says, hinting that she has no designs on a state or national office. “If I get another term as mayor, I’ll be 80 and I think that’ll be enough.” Call her Roppe 3.0.