Rural Oregon Town Rides The Wind - And Wind Sports - To Prosperity

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Hood River, Oregon, is tucked along the Columbia River an hour east of Portland. Population: just over 7,000. Like much of the rural West, it’s a town once defined by big timber and agriculture. In the new West, where high tech is king, it's been tough for some small communities. But Hood River's economy has managed to stay aloft.

The 'Famous Gorge West Winds'

In his living room overlooking the Columbia, Steve Gates scans the water for clues about the day’s wind conditions. It’s his morning ritual. Over 20 years ago, Gates moved to Hood River for the wind.

"We're right smack dab in the middle of the Cascade Range which runs north-south," he says. "And the Columbia River happens to be this east-west cut through the Range. And so in the summertime, the desert floor heats up, and the warm air, of course, rises. And as the warm air rises off of the desert floor it then has the effect of pulling the cool marine air from the west to the east. So this is what creates the famous gorge west winds in the summertime."

Surfers use kites to glide across the Columbia River. No waves needed.  (Jason Albert/Only A Game)
Surfers use kites to glide across the Columbia River. No waves needed. (Jason Albert/Only A Game)

For much of its history, Hood River's economy rose and fell with the boom-bust cycle of fruit prices and timber war lawsuits. By the early '80s, mothballed fruit packing plants and vacant storefronts were a common sight. Unemployment rates hovered near 20 percent. The persistent wind, a nuisance.

But for serious windsurfers, Hood River was becoming a Shangri-la, a place where the quickly growing sport could harness a freakish weather phenomena.

Maui Meyer first competed there as a teenager while on the pro windsurfing world tour. And after four years of Ivy League study, he returned for his daily wind fix.

"You know, in 1991 I was either going to be broke in New York City or broke in Hood River," Meyer says. "And it was going to be way more fun to be broke in Hood River."

From Visitor...To Resident

Today, Meyer isn’t broke and neither is Hood River. Here's why: over the past few decades, Hood River has become known as North America’s windiest summertime destination for windsurfers, kiteboarders and downwind, stand-up paddlers.

"Certainly wind sports and windsurfing, which is the reason why I came here, has helped the economy," Meyer says. "But I think it’s bit a little bit more catalytic, more than transformative."

At first, the wind junkies acted like visitors. Over time, some stayed: they coached teams, opened businesses.

In 1991 I was either going to be broke in New York City or broke in Hood River, and it was going to be way more fun to be broke in Hood River.

Maui Meyer, Hood River resident

"You can tell when people wake up, and they are like, 'Oh, you mean I do have to volunteer at school? I can’t just take, take, take, take from the community and parade about on how cool we are.' It's, 'Oh, I've got to give back.'"

One of those businesses is Slingshot Sports, a local manufacturer of wind sports gear with a global sales footprint. Like many U.S. sports equipment companies, Slingshot outsourced to China. That business model eventually posed problems.

Fed up, Jim Kimball, Slingshot Sports CFO, says the company sought to make some of their gear nearby in North Bonneville, Washington — with unexpected results.

"We are really quick to move with any kind of change or innovation," Kimball says. "You can go from, literally, come up with an idea today, and we can have a board on the water tomorrow and test it. It just gives us a tremendous competitive edge.”

Now, Slingshot remains competitive and supports about 30 local manufacturing jobs.

Kiteboards ready for a lunch hour play time.  (Jason Albert/Only A Game)
Kiteboards ready for a lunch hour play time. (Jason Albert/Only A Game)

'A Really Cool Face'

At first glance, it’s easy to think of this as a one-dimensional town. A van stacked with kiteboards or windsurfing sails and wind-frazzled hair seem to be passports for entry. But it’s not that simple.

"Agriculture was always here," Meyer says. "It is still the largest part of this economy. Windsurfing just gave it a really cool face. It made it fun to live in a farm town."

The land upslope from Hood River is prime orchard country.

In the town's earlier days, farmers viewed the wind as a detriment. But now their attitude has changed. The wind brings new customers: athletes focused on healthy eating.

"Some of them will come every week and get fruit from our farm," says Katrina McAlexander, a third-generation orchardist. "So we've felt very backed as farmers by that community."

Immersed in the orchards, smelling peach, it’s hard to deny the agrarian roots of this place. But Meyer says Hood River has prospered because wind sports changed the way the town thought about itself.

"Showing up and strapping on a sports component to a town won't save it," Meyer says. "But it will change it, and in changing it, it might turn it into to something that it didn't know it was going to become."

The trappings of the new West are here: espresso, wineries, adventure sports shops, small-scale tech and big-time vistas. A craft brewery now operates out of an old fruit-packing plant. But Hood River is also a place where farmers and wind sport athletes both ruminate on what the weather will bring. More often than not, the talk of the town is about wind: how much and where it's blowing.

This segment aired on September 5, 2015.



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