Keeping Sisters vibrant in the face of change
Last updated 4/26/2022 at Noon
Growth and change in Sisters are nothing new to Debbie Newport. She’s seen a lot of both in a lifetime spent here.
Her family — the Dyers — have deep roots in Sisters and Camp Sherman. Newport served Sisters schools as an educator and has worked with nonprofits to the betterment of the community, from the Sisters Folk Festival to Circle of Friends.
Newport is one of the panelists in the Keeping Sisters “Sisters”: Navigating Change in a Growing Community forum set for May 12 at the Sisters Fire Hall Community Room. The event is sponsored by Citizens4Community (C4C) and The Nugget Newspaper.
Newport will offer a historical perspective on growth and change — but a particular kind of historical perspective.
“It’s not so much the history of Sisters that’s important in this context — it’s the history of community building,” she said.
For Newport, a hinge point for Sisters came in 1989. In the 1970s, the town had begun to find its way forward as the timber economy changed. Brooks Resources invested in creating a Western architectural theme downtown, and Sisters began to attract tourism. The Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show came into being. The town weathered a severe recession in the early 1980s and continued to slowly evolve into a tourist town.
But something was lacking.
“As tourism began to develop, I think people were pretty excited about it,” Newport said. “But I don’t think there was core to the community at that point.”
In 1989, a wide range of community members — about 200 of them, a huge proportion of a small town — gathered at the Sisters Rodeo Grounds to decide what they wanted to become as a community. Thoughts quickly coalesced around a need to return the students who were going to high school in Redmond back to the community, around the idea of building a high school that would become a community hub.
“Having our kids back and having them grow up in the community was key,” Newport recalled.
That’s what happened. The community passed a bond, and built what would become Sisters Middle/High School, which opened in 1992. It’s now Sisters Middle School.
In Newport’s estimation, something less tangible but equally important came out of that 1989 gathering. Sisters became a community that was very intentional about what it wanted to become. People got in the habit of coming together to hash out a vision.
“That kind of became who we were and how we did things,” she said. “I guess as you get bigger, that gets harder. Now we do it with a survey.”
Newport believes that retaining that quality of intentionality and a willingness to get together as a community, decide what we want to do, and roll up our sleeves and get to work is vital if we are, indeed, to “keep Sisters ‘Sisters.’”
“I think C4C is really important in that role,” she said.
Fostering active, civil discourse has become more challenging in recent years, as the social and political culture nationwide has grown more rancorous. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into efforts to bring people together. Social media makes it easier to weigh in from your computer, without the requirement to physically show up and act.
“I think without personal investment, we lose that commitment, maybe,” she said. “‘Showing up’ looks different and is less demanding.”
Newport sees value in the May 12 forum, where panelists will lay out the framework under which growth is managed in Oregon and in Sisters.
“I think it’s about truly understanding the legal implications and dynamics of all of the things that impact growth,” she said.
Can the community really shape the level of growth Sisters is experiencing with the vast changes in the way people are living and working in the 2020s?
“I don’t know, but I hope we have some means to impact that,” she said. “And what does it mean if you do?”
Newport emphasizes that her long tenure here gives her some perspective, but she is just one voice in what should be a vigorous community discussion.
“I have no more right than anybody to say, ‘this is how it will be,’” she said. “But we have the ability as a community to come together and impact how things will be. That’s my hope.”
Keeping Sisters “Sisters”: Navigating Change in a Growing Community will take place on Thursday, May 12, at 5:30 p.m., at the Sisters Fire Hall Community Room. Panelists will present on various topics pertaining to growth in Sisters and there will be an opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts. For more information, visit www.citizens4community.com/events.