Sisters is quite a place to this Sweet Home boy

While I’m still a relative newcomer to Sweet Home, I’ve been here long enough to hear about Sisters.

In fact, I heard about Sisters soon after we arrived here. The reference usually came up in connection with discussion of Sweet Home’s future and, to be honest, I got the feeling in some cases that it was spoken with a bit of envy.

Consequently, I’ve been eager to visit Sisters. But, because of the busyness of getting in the groove here at the newspaper over the last year, I haven’t made it. Our family tried once, last winter. Made it all the way to Hoodoo, but with fresh, falling snow 5 inches deep on Highway 20, vehicles sliding into each other and Sisters still 24 miles away, I decided it wasn’t a good day to visit Sisters.

Last Friday, though, I finally made it. I drove up there to photograph the Huskies’ football opener against the Outlaws of Sisters High School, and I made sure I got there early so I could check out the town.

It was everything advertised, the western-themed buildings (required by a city ordinance), the businesses that meet every tourist’s needs — and then some, from Advanced Systems Portable Restrooms to Zadow Physical Therapy — the eateries serving everything from steak to sushi.

All this within a town 10 blocks long by five wide, with a population of about 1,700 (though the school district is about the same as Sweet Home’s – around 15,000), a 20 mph speed limit through most of the downtown and no stop lights.

Normally, I’m not a fan of traffic signals, but one can see the silver lining when sitting in the hot sun for five minutes, praying for a pedestrian to cross and stop the Labor Day Weekend traffic so one can simply drive across the main drag.

Since I’ve gotten to Sweet Home, I’ve gotten very interested in where our town is headed. I’ve already written several times on the topic of Sweet Home’s development from a primarily logging town to whatever it is becoming.

The fact that we have so much potential as a tourism magnet makes Sisters very interesting.

Sisters is a town that is clearly sure of itself, a place that has cornered the market, for now, on travelers headed east through the mountains. They have reason to be confident: They’ve done it up nice.

The buildings, though appearing to be less than 20 years old for the most part, have that Old West theme; and there are clearly a lot of people in town with imagination and vision, who have opened businesses that focus on merchandise and themes that are unique and attractive to sophisticated visitors. The Numb Butt Fly Company, for instance. I’m intrigued.

It’s a fair distance back from Sisters and, driving through the Cascades in the dark after the game, I thought deeply about the differences between them and us.

Sisters is slick and (at least to many city people) attractive. It has some style, though the architecture really reminds me more of a city with the latest in precise municipal planning and design standards than a genuine small Oregon community. It’s cute, but it seems just a little sterile to me.

What it does have, though, as I said earlier, is vision. Somebody, some 35 years ago, decided there was potential there and figured out what it would take to realize that potential. When other people saw that vision coming to fruition, they jumped in with money and talent to get a piece of it.

Consequently, they’ve built a town where travelers want to stop, partly because it offers pretty much anything they might want to stop for.

Nothing I’m saying here should come as a shock to anybody. I’ve heard variations of this about Sisters since I got to Sweet Home.

What we have here in Sweet Home is potential. We have things Sisters doesn’t have. Granted, we don’t have Highway 22 feeding into our town, but we have water that Sisters doesn’t have.

We have better proximity to large population centers. We are as close to mountains — depending on which one you want to visit — as Sisters is, and we’re the largest final stop before you hit the Cascades from the populated areas to the west. We’re definitely greener.

We have vision too. As I mentioned recently in another column, new owners are taking over established businesses and improving them, or are starting brand new enterprises.

The Oregon Jamboree is a result of Sweet Home residents’ vision. We can only hope that the proceeds from the Jamboree will, as intended, take Sweet Home forward as that vision continues to be applied. The idea of putting an amphitheatre here is a really promising example of what could happen.

We need more of this. Whether Sweet Home can come up with a visual theme that everybody can agree on, whether it be a retro-’50s look as some suggest or something else, remains to be seen.

The Sweet Home Economic Development Group, which has been banking the proceeds from the Jamboree, should take the lead in generating ideas for what a tourist-friendly Sweet Home should look like.

We already have some ideas. Three years ago, SHEDG helped pay for a downtown improvement plan. It included many ideas for Main Street’s appearance. Perhaps the time has come to start implementing some of them. SHEDG could use financial incentives to encourage business owners to adopt some uniform standards for appearance and attractiveness.

SHEDG already has done this on a small scale with its facade improvement program, but sooner or later we’re going to have to take it to the next level if we ever want to compete effectively for tourist trade.

I’ve definitely seen progress in this town — just in the last six months. If some of the folks who move into the 1,000-plus homes on the drawing boards bring some more vision and talent to Sweet Home, it may not take us 30 years to become the kind of place that brings folks to town just to check us out.

And, by the way, our football stadium is definitely better.