News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Hitting the sweet spot

During recent discussions about the potential expansion of Sisters’ urban growth boundary (UGB), Sisters City Councilor Andrea Blum noted that she hears from constituents who think Sisters has hit a “sweet spot” and should just stay the way it is.

It’s an understandable sentiment. We probably all have an idea of Sisters’ “sweet spot,” a point at which our community is or was “just right” and didn’t need to change. I tend to think that Sisters’ “sweet spot” came right around 2004. The city’s population was 1,183, about a third of what it is now. Sisters had most of the amenities needed to make life comfortable and interesting — plenty of events and activities, restaurants, a movie theater… The woods and trails were uncrowded. Schools were strong, though they did tend to struggle with budgets.

But, then again, some of my favorite people in the world had not yet moved here in 2004, and my life is so much richer for having them in it… So maybe the “sweet spot” wasn’t exactly perfect.

That’s the problem with “sweet spots”: they’re illusory. And subjective. I’m guessing that there are plenty of folks in Sisters who would set their sweet spot way earlier than mine, and would just as soon not have any of the stuff that has come along in the past two or three decades.

And, as Councilor Jennifer Lutz pointed out recently, what might constitute a sweet spot for you or me isn’t that for others. There are a whole lot of folks who can’t even hope to find a sweet spot in a median home price of $750,000. I have friends who have lived here for many years who can’t afford to live here anymore. The sweet spot’s gone sour on them.

Part of the illusion of a sweet spot is that you can stay there. Nothing stands still. Even if Sisters were to stop growing, it would still change. And very likely not for the better. That median home price will continue to go up; Sisters will become a more and more exclusive community. That may sound just fine to some folks, but I’d argue against it. Restaurants and shops already struggle to find staff; if working folks are priced out, the vibrant downtown core will be hollowed out.

It’s hard to have a vibrant arts and music scene in a town where artists and musicians can’t afford to live. And if young families can’t afford to live here, and teachers can’t make a go of it, the schools that are so central to Sisters’ sense of itself will suffer.

There are real and legitimate concerns about growth. Can Sisters remain a neighborly small town when it’s got twice the population it has now? We’ve done a remarkable job staying neighborly in the 30 years I’ve been here, as the population climbed from 750 to 1,100, to now about 3,400. But there’s surely a tipping point, right? Can Sisters accommodate the projected population of 7,400 in 2043 and truly remain Sisters?

There are no easy answers to the questions posed by the pressures of abiding in a place where so many people dream of living. There are consequences – intended and unintended — to any course of action or inaction. From what I’ve seen, City staff and Sisters’ elected and appointed officials are acutely aware that there are no simple fixes, and that they don’t have pat answers.

The City promises a robust public process in determining what an urban growth expansion will look like, and what it might mean for Sisters. They will certainly need the help and collective wisdom of a public that has the long-term interests of the community at heart. Because Sisters is facing tricky dilemmas that get trickier with every passing year — and the one thing nobody can do is stop time.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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