Business Success Focuses on Community in Northeastern Oregon
4 May 2022
Entrepreneurs seek to make a living with their ideas, but the extreme satisfaction gained from the validation of their effort by satisfied customers can be unmatched. Opportunities for both exist in northeastern Oregon, a region where residents possessing a diverse range of talents have been increasingly successful in making their dreams a reality.
“I routinely talk to visitors staying at the Central Hotel from all across the country and ask why they came to Burns,” said Jen Keady, the Historic Central Hotel owner. “When one recently said they came specifically to stay in the Central Hotel, it felt like we won the lottery!”
Eye on Burns
Keady is an excellent example of an entrepreneur pursuing her dreams while choosing to make her area attractive to visitors. Born and raised in Burns, she went to Optometry School at Pacific University College of Optometry, graduating in 2000. Keady moved back to Burns in 2004 and opened Family Eyecare of Harney County but lived in Bend, commuting two hours each way for five years. She and her husband Forrest decided to purchase the old Masonic Lodge building on the main street of Burns in 2013, renovating it to be their residence on the upper level and creating a space to run ger practice on the ground floor.
“The larger building and more space helped me continue my passion for optometry while serving more patients, many I have known since I was a little kid,” she said.
The Keadys have plenty of energy for revitalizing the community, continuing with their purchase of the Historic Central Hotel in 2016, renovating it into a unique boutique hotel that could draw visitors to Burns. Jen is also a City Council member who sees plenty of opportunity in Burns, with the support provided by the City Council, an excellent city manager and other organizations like the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative.
“I remember how vibrant Burns was growing up here in the ‘80s at the height of the timber industry and I want to make it like that again,” she said. “We want Burns to be a destination where families visit for a weekend and see a vibrant community they could see themselves living in.”
Building up Main Street
Several years back, Shannon Adair and her husband had a decision to make: move to a larger city for more amenities or stay in the community they had lived in for years.
“We decided to stay and create the amenities we wanted,” she said. “We are very passionate about making John Day a place everyone wants to be part of.”
That decision led to the creation of John Day’s 1188 Brewing. Her husband had started brewing beer in their garage as a hobby, having family members and friends over to sample his creations. They opened a spot on Main Street in 2013, doubling in size by 2017, which today is a social gathering space for folks to spend an afternoon, hold business meetings or introduce potential employees to the community. The beers brewed on-site are just the tip of the craft experience to be found there.
“Everything inside, from the beverages and food to the artwork, murals, furniture and bar top, are from local craftsmen,” she said.
Business has increased every year except in 2020 with COVID-19, but 2021 was more than they could have imagined.
“Rural communities must have a vibrant downtown area,” she said. “ We believe our business brings in customers who can benefit the other businesses here.”
Today, the Adair’s are looking to expand locally with a destination location that could include a distillery, cidery or artist makerspace while keeping the Main Street building.
Space for a sweet tooth
When Jenny Mowe and her husband moved to Baker City after her successful WNBA career, she quickly felt a change.
“I was a bored housewife, trying hobbies like gardening, but I was terrible at it,” she said. “I joined a baking club and one of my creations sold out quickly at a friend’s restaurant, so I just started baking more.”
That modest start led Mowe to rent a space in the corner of Baker Tower for Sweet Wife Baking in Baker City in 2011, then progressing through the stages of a small wholesale shop and farmers’ markets. She bought a small shop in town in 2015, then purchased the building for her current location in 2019, opening in 2021.
“My largest goal with the shop was to create a community space with a small-town atmosphere, where you know everyone when you walk through the door,” she said.
Mowe offers baked products that she believes customers value for their hand-crafted nature, made with high-quality ingredients like real butter, fruit and chocolate. She hopes to branch out to new foods like salads, but she has had to put that on the back burner due to the limited availability of staffing.
“I would love to expand our hours to include early evening, so people could order a cocktail and enjoy the pleasant company of friends,” she said. “But staffing is the issue, as everyone is looking for cooks and other roles. My staff has been exceptional, and a few more would help take some stress off them.”
Mowe is proud to be part of a significant contingent of local female business owners.
“Baker City is a great town to start a small business because the opportunities and resources allow you to grow at your pace,” she said. “An entrepreneur can start slowly with their idea, growing into the market without having to make a huge investment that could break someone just starting.”
Something for everyone
Jenny Bartell thought of opening Community Merchants in La Grande with a model of a historic mercantile store, knowing she had many local artists and creators to draw on.
“The talent here is phenomenal,” she said. “I wanted a spot to show off the amazing abilities of local residents that could also add some special charm that could be unique to our community.”
What started as an eclectic little shop in 2012 has expanded three times and now includes local products created by more than 60 local vendors. Customers can find kitchen supplies, jewelry and home decor. Food products like beef and pork from Bartell’s ranch and other Union County farmers or bison from Wallowa County fill the shelves.
“The diverse skills and abilities of a diverse community have kept my business going,” she said. “From ranchers and farmers who have been here for generations to those coming in from Eastern Oregon University, everyone here understands the importance of shopping locally, keeping more money in the community and supporting the area's talent.”