Most of the campsites, boat launches and trailheads that draw people from the valley to the mountains near Oakridge are closed. Many local businesses are shuttered, at least for now. The steady stream of cars that normally flows through the town has thinned to a trickle.
But on recent sunny days, a crowd of cars has been parking outside Lion Mountain Bakery. People sit in their vehicles, order takeout from the bakery and listen to local musician Broken Horn sing and play guitar in front of his van.
He was playing old country and rock ‘n’ roll songs for tips in the café until Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order shut down the bakery for everything besides takeout. Broken Horn, a Native American man who prefers to go by his native name, moved to Oakridge a few months ago and lives out of his van.
“When this virus thing happened, I couldn’t make any money, so I decided to start playing outside,” he says.
Since April 9, Broken Horn has been playing outside the bakery from noon to 2 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays — the only days the business is open right now.
“I’m really fortunate,” he says. “I get to play outside, and I’m doing what I like to do.”
Broken Horn is remaining optimistic about the situation. But Oakridge, a recreation destination on Hwy 58 about 30 minutes west of Willamette Pass, relies on tourism, and people haven’t been coming to the town during the coronavirus crisis. Many local businesses will struggle this season, Oakridge Mayor Kathy Holston says.
“Right about now is the time when we see more tourism come in,” she says. “And they really rely on that, so it’s been a big hit.”
This isn’t the first time Oakridge has had to cope with economic catastrophe. The town prospered with the logging industry into the 1980s. Two lumber mills kept many residents employed. But by 1990, the logging industry had crashed and both mills were closed. Since then, Oakridge has had to reinvent itself as a mountain tourism town to keep afloat.
The last line of Holston’s email signature reads: “Mountain Bike Capital of the Northwest.”
Nevertheless, Holston is asking people not to visit Oakridge for now. There have been no cases of COVID-19 in Oakridge that she knows of, and she wants to keep her community from being exposed.
Holston says if people come to recreate on the trails and dispersed camping sites still open in the area, she’s asking that they stay self-contained and avoid local businesses.
Lion Mountain Bakery, where Broken Horn plays, is a business that’s been seriously affected by the drop in tourism.
Owner Jacqui Lomont has been selling takeout and pre-orders of baked goods since the executive order shut down regular business. But she’s had to reduce her work to only 12 hours a week. She worries whether her business will make it through the crisis.
“I have great local support — there’s no question about that,” Lomont says. “But because I’m on the highway, a lot of my business would normally come from people traveling through town to go skiing or mountain biking or boating or hiking.”
She says she tried to apply for an emergency federal government loan for small businesses, but the money ran out before she got her application in. Lomont says it’s hard to keep up with the latest information on how to apply for federal money, and she isn’t counting on getting any.
“I feel like every day, I start from scratch,” she says.
Holston says the Oakridge/Westfir Chamber of Commerce has been calling small businesses to try to help during this time. There’s a list of resources for businesses on its website. She says the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, an organization that helps small businesses, has been holding weekly teleconferences for business owners in the Oakridge area.
But the mayor recognizes things will be difficult for businesses in Oakridge, and getting federal loans has been hard.
Holston says she thinks Oakridge will bounce back once things reopen. She says she will push hard to bring visitors and money back to the town when the time comes.
“I don’t think we’ll do just fine, but I do think we will get by, and we’re going to work together to help one another to do the best they can,” Holston says.