Walking along the Deschutes River by the Old Mill District, it’s hard to imagine anything else but the area’s clean riparian wildlife, restaurants and recreation activities.
It wasn’t always that way. For 79 years, it was a gritty, barren area that was home to an active, working saw mill.
It wasn’t until 2010 that residents and visitors could walk into the river from a beach at Riverbend Park. There was even a city law prohibiting floating in the river.
“You couldn’t swim in the river,” said Don Horton, Bend Park & Recreation District executive director. “That lasted until the 1980s.”
Today, innertubes have replaced cut trees in the river, with about 250,000 people floating every summer and another 1,400 on average hike the trail from McKay Park through the Old Mill District.
The entire 270-acres that was former mill property was repurposed, turning the area into a shining example of redevelopment prowess.
It also served to help re-brand Bend: from a timber town to a tourist destination.
In all, 11 buildings were preserved during the redevelopment, which included reusing bricks from buildings there: The Powerhouse, the Hog Fuel building, a garage used for a mill fire truck, a Brooks Scanlon office building and the red building that houses Tumalo Creek Canoe & Kayak, said Kelly Cannon-Miller, Deschutes County Historical Society executive director.
Also preserved were the highest landmarks in Bend: three sawmill smokestacks from the Brooks-Scanlon Mill, which rise more than 200 feet over the Old Mill District.
Rezoning alone took four years, 11 months and two days. The district opened in 2000-2001.
The intention was to give a nod to Bend’s past while looking ahead and embracing its future.
“The economic and demographic transformation of the city of Bend between 1990 and today is a remarkable story to tell,” said Cannon-Miller. “It’s sometimes difficult to impart to those who never experienced the small logging mill town we used to be when timber was king.
“The preservation of the buildings, particularly the powerhouse, smoke stacks, and hog fuel building, gives a physical, visual lesson about our industrial heritage, a recognition that everywhere you walk in the Old Mill District was within that industrial scope. The work that took place in and around those buildings is the reason Bend exists today,” she said.
Some say the Old Mill District was the vision of one man, Bill Smith, of William Smith Properties, who died Nov. 18. Smith was a partner in the community. To that end, he invested in The Bulletin when the owners, EO Media Group purchased the paper in a bankruptcy procedure.
Others say it was a collective vision of Smith and his group of investors, who included Les Schwab. They called their partnership the River Bend Limited Partnership. Together they raised $6 million to purchase the land and fund the design and construction of roads and trails around the mill.
They envisioned open space surrounding a dense core that included an amphitheater, shopping/dining areas, office buildings, hotels, and parks and trails.
About two-thirds of the entire property was sold off to others, but there are still a few parcels targeted for retail development.
Three are in the process of being built now, said Peter McCaffrey, William Smith Properties vice president of leasing and development. Construction on two buildings could begin this year, McCaffrey said.
TVA Architects is designing the project and Kirby Nagelhout Construction Co. will serve as the contractor. The new buildings will incorporate the outdoors by facing the hot ponds and pedestrian footbridge at the north end of the property.
Another area targeted for redevelopment will have a mix of retail businesses and apartments with some dedicated to short term rentals, McCaffrey said. The idea is that the apartments could cater to groups of visitors to the amphitheater.
“A lot of what we have today is Bill’s vision,” Horton said. “It took a lot of patience. He wanted to build more than just a shopping center. He wanted to build something that was vibrant. He turned blight into beauty.”
The outcome was a vision that is Bend today, a place where visitors and residents can experience the outdoors, recreate on or near the river, shop and dine.
“It was not a blighted site, but a good opportunity,” said McCaffrey. “Bill always knew the site was something special. It was built intentionally.”
Not just a timber town
In the beginning, there were two mills across the river from each other. The Brooks-Scanlon and Shevlin-Hixon mills. They straddled the river and put Bend on the map with the mills operating around the clock and producing 500 million board feet of lumber per year, according to historical facts from the Old Mill District. They employed more than 2,000 people.
In 1950, facing dwindling timber supplies, Shevlin-Hixon sold its interests to Brooks-Scanlon. Brooks-Scanlon’s Mill closed in 1983 and was in a state of near ruin and a change of ownership before being restored in the 1990s. At the time, the population of Bend was about 30,000.
There were times when the Deschutes River was so full of timber that mill employees could walk up and down the river from bank to bank. But as timber supplies dwindled, Brooks-Scanlon was sold to a larger international outfit, which ultimately shut down mill operations in 1993.
That’s when the light bulb went off for Smith, who had worked for Brooks-Scanlon in 1970 as a planning director. He worked his way up in Brooks Resources Corp., which is a publicly held real estate development company. For a decade he was the president, before forming William Smith Properties in 1983.
He envisioned a mixed-use development along the banks of the Deschutes River.
To finance the vision, Smith and his investors sold off chunks of land, including some the Bend Park & Recreation District.
What they built is known today as the Old Mill District, which opened in 2001 and still featured the smoke stacks as a symbol of Bend pride.
“The stacks are an iconic image of the mill,” said Marney Smith, William Smith Properties principal owner and officer. “The rezoning never was used before in Bend.”
River Bend Limited Partnership still owns about one-third of the original 270 acres, including the walking paths that connect the development to the area parks. All along, the plan included an amphitheater, Smith said.
“It was important to Bill (Smith) to have the area landscaped,” Marney Smith said. “He wanted to create a sense of place.”
Going in different directions
Had it not been for that vision, Bend could have left those acres lie fallow as industrial land after the mill closed. But town leaders at the time embraced Smith’s vision.
“Bend could have gone in multiple ways,” said Beau Eastes, Old Mill District marketing director. “The goal was to improve the quality of life. We were at a turning point when the mills closed. Where does this town go?”
There was no Tetherow, no NorthWest Crossing or Broken Top, said Jeff Eager, a Bend mayor from 2011-2013.
“Bend was smaller and it was on the regional radar for skiing, but not not on the national radar and no one recognized it as a telecommuting hub that it is now,” Eager said. “Smith and the investors took a significant financial risk to bank on a city that was in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t have a lot going on yet.”
Preserving the best of Bend allowed the town to grow and blossom, he said.
“The smokestacks are the image of Bend. They symbolize what Bend was and is now,” Eager said. “They were part of a giant pine mill and now loom over a recreational sports store. They’re very symbolic.”
But Smith’s partners had a clear vision that included retail, a outdoor concert venue, offices and residential buildings. He saw it as a series of smaller projects that could be built as the town grew.
“Bend was in the same position a lot of towns were in the Pacific Northwest that were coming to grips with a huge economic change, away form wood products to something else or nothing else,” said Eager. “Bend had a lot going for it already. It had a ski resort, the forest service property, a river that runs through it and a lot of sunshine.
“But, it could have gone a number of different ways.”
The Bend today is a reimagined city that combines its rich timber history with recreation, dining, shopping, culture and arts, said Kevney Dugan, CEO of Visit Bend, the nonprofit contracted by the city to market Bend.
During Bend’s busy summer travel, more than half of the visitors shop either in downtown Bend or at the Old Mill District, according to a three year survey by Visit Bend this year. Coming in third are trips to the breweries, according to the survey.
On average, visitors spent $155 per person per day in Bend, down from a high of $189 per day in 2021, according to the survey. The average summer visitor spent $53 a day shopping in 2022, according to the survey.
More than 80% of the visitors who came to Bend last year came for outdoor recreation, according to the survey.
“(Smith’s) foresight and passion for this community created a welcoming space for locals and visitors alike,” Dugan said. “What a tremendous impact he had not only on Bend’s economy, but on our vibrancy as a community.”