As small towns test strategies to attract economic development, Echo’s approach might best be described as “Plant it and they will come.”
It’s a sort of reversal of many cities’ strategy: Instead of focusing on attracting businesses in order to grow the tax base and have money to beautify the city, Echo is focused on beautifying the city to attract more growth.
“Basically, is the chicken first or the egg?” asked Diane Berry, city manager.
Berry, supported by the city council and private and public partners, has aggressively sought grants for art, trees, flowers and historical preservation in the city of 715 people. The city has also worked to extend that beautification to residences through programs like Christmas light contests and tree giveaways.
It hasn’t brought a grocery store or gas station to town, or allowed the few Main Street businesses to open more than two or three days a week. But it has gained Echo a reputation as a “hidden gem” of Eastern Oregon, complete with vineyards, tasting rooms, a golf course, camping, a museum, antique store, highly rated eateries and a truly historic downtown.
“People come here and they rave,” Berry said.
Arguably the biggest partners with the city in developing Echo’s downtown have been Lloyd and Lois Piercy. The pair, who own Echo West Vineyard and Sno Road Winery, have renovated several of Echo’s historic buildings and are in the process of restoring more. Their projects — past and present — include the old one-room schoolhouse, the former grocery store, a downtown garage, the historic Koontz building and the former Echo Hotel. They also hold several events each year that draw tourists in, including the Red 2 Red bike race across their land and an annual car show that benefits the high school shop class.
“We love Echo, we love the historical aspects of Echo, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” Lois said.
She said preserving the buildings’ historical aspects while also adapting them to modern — uses like the winery — take a lot of time and money. But the Piercys enjoy hearing from past and present Echo residents who remember the buildings in their glory days.
“I love the memories and the nostalgia that just pour in,” Lois said.
The Piercys also love the rich soil around Echo, which Lois said has produced “wonderful” grapes in the vineyard.
In addition to being good for growing grapes, Echo has also proved fertile for trees and flowers. The city regularly wins awards from the America in Bloom and Tree City U.S.A organizations, some of which are almost unheard of for a town so small.
“We’ve played on that and tried to build up community pride,” Berry said.
One of the many events focused on building up that community pride was Wednesday afternoon at the Echo Tree Fair. It seemed to be working, too. As elementary school students played leaf identification bingo, answered questions about trees and made rubbings of bark, they demonstrated a sound knowledge of trees and a pride in Echo’s beauty.
“Trees are used to make lots of things,” fourth-grader Abby Gaede said in answer to a question about why it’s good for a city to have trees. “We’ve actually won Tree City U.S.A.”
Echo School fifth grade teacher Rick Thew, who on Wednesday was in the city hall ballroom teaching students about the effects of forest fires, said those types of community events were one of the things he enjoyed about Echo.
“I like the small-school community aspect, where everyone is watching out for everyone,” he said.
Thew doesn’t actually live in Echo, however, because when he began working for the school district he and his family couldn’t find a house in Echo that fit their needs. Now they commute to the school every day from Stanfield.
Thew’s living situation points to one of the ironies of Echo: It’s a “bedroom community” with a scarcity of bedrooms.
Berry said some people don’t like hearing Echo categorized as a bedroom community, but the fact that the majority of its residents are either retired or working in a different community means it’s “just a fact of life.”
However, Echo isn’t really seeing new housing development other than a new house or two a year on Echo Heights, north of the city. That means people like Thew — attracted to Echo for its beauty, amenities and small-town vibe — can find themselves out of luck when looking for housing that fits their needs.
Fortunately, Berry pointed out, Stanfield is less than five miles away and Hermiston is about a nine-minute drive in good conditions.
It’s a good thing, because even though Echo residents can get a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Echo Ridge Cellars or duck gnocchi from the Wheat & Barley Pub, there’s nowhere in town to buy an egg or a chicken breast.
Peggy Haines, an Echo resident who shops at the Main Street Market in Stanfield, said as much as she loves Echo’s quaint, small-town feel that’s the one thing she would like to see change about it: a market or grocery store.
“It would be nice if you’re cooking and need some flour or sugar to just run to the store,” she said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.