Realtor says Sweet Home in good position as county changes

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Times have changed in East Linn County, but that may be good for Sweet Home.

So said Don Robertson, co-owner and principal broker of Heritage Northwest Real Estate, at a meeting of the Breakfast Club, sponsored by Sweet Home Economic Development Group, at the Senior Center April 27.

Robertson, who grew up in Foster and graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1969, spoke to some 25 people about the changing real estate market and how it is affecting east Linn County commnunities.

He said rising home prices in the Albany and Corvallis areas are driving prospective homebuyers eastward.

“Last year was probably the most rapid growth in real estate values East Linn County has ever seen – 13 percent,” Robertson said.

The average home price in Sweet Home was $120,000, while Lebanon’s average price was $126,000. Albany homes averaged $160,000. In Corvallis, he said, “you’re lucky to find anything under $200,000.”

For years, East Linn County was a “best-kept secret,” Robertson said. Now, first-time homebuyers are looking to East Linn County because they can’t afford a starter home in Albany or Corvallis.

“It’s a good thing for taxes and growth,” he said. “It’s bad for the commute.”

Another change has been in Sweet Home itself – the approval of nearly 1,000 buildable lots over the past two years by the city Planning Commission. “I never thought I’d see the airport with houses standing on it. But they’re getting ready to tear the hangars down. I never thought I’d see houses at the end of 10th Avenue or at the end of Clark Mill. Sweet Home is changing.”

Robertson said he is concerned about the number of lots on the market and the effect it may have on prices, but he said he doesn’t think there is much of a bubble effect in the East Linn County real estate market.

He said the only concern he has about present prices in East Linn County taking a dive would be if the federal government jacks up the interest rates.

“I hope the feds learned their lesson in the early ’80s when the interest rates peaked at 22 percent,” he said. “Unless interest rates do that, I don’t see a bubble.”

Robertson said he is concerned that large local developers, who hail from Eugene, Corvallis and Salem, stay realistic about what kinds of homes will sell best in Sweet Home.

“Builders and developers like to build grandiose houses because they’re proud of that,” he said. “Nobody wants to build smaller two- to three-bedroom houses.”

Robertson, who has been on the Lebanon Planning Commission for eight years, also discussed the promise of industry moving into East Linn County on the heels of the Lowe’s Distribution Center.

He said Lebanon was able to attract Lowe’s by preparing industrial property so it would be “industry-ready,” as he put it – ready for a business construction with minimal delays.

Corporations are concerned about being able to do what they need to do, he said. He noted that prior to the last election in Lebanon, city staff had stopped hearing much from Lowe’s developers. Then, the day before the election, the city manager got a call from Lowes asking him to let the corporation know as soon as possible how the election had turned out.

“They were concerned about one seat on a city council in a dinky little town,” he said.

With Lowe’s building its distribution center in Lebanon, Robertson said he doesn’t expect a “tremendous rush” of homebuyers. He predicted that there will be one, though, as other satellite businesses move in – industries that consistently locate near Lowes, such as a broom manufacturer that always builds plants near Lowe’s, which it uses to distribute its products.

When that happens, he said, several hundred more jobs will become available in the area. In Perris, Calif. (near San Bernardino), where the closest Lowe’s distribution center is currently located, other chains, such as Ross Dress for Less, followed suit, leading to more jobs there.

“We’ve seen gobs of inquiries,” he said. “But nobody’s stepped up. We’ve had a lot of inquiries from Perris, Calif.”

Robertson said Sweet Home has one thing, in particular, going for it – a large urban growth boundary at a time when many larger cities have little or none left.

He pointed out that demographics sought by large chains don’t favor Sweet Home or Lebanon, but he noted that sometimes those demographics don’t hold up to reality.

In Albany, for instance, the Red Robin restaurant is there only because the company’s CEO grew up in Albany, Robertson said.

Although the city’s demographics would have caused corporate planners to eliminate it from consideration under normal circumstances, the restaurant had the largest grand opening in the company’s history and remains one of its most successful restaurants.

“Sometimes you have to just throw out the demographics,” Robertson said.