Bend Over Bend:Wasting Away in LaBendmondville
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Bend Over Bend: Wasting Away in Labendmondville. The Source. April 5-12. 7.
By Andy Kerr
Another one million people are projected to live in Oregon in 2025. The Portland State University Population Research Center estimates that 4.3 million people—about 1 million more than we have today—will live in Oregon. That translates to thirty more Bends.
Most of the projected increase, like most of the current population of Oregon, is expected west of the Cascades, but at least five of those Bends will likely be east of the crest.
In 1999, Deschutes County grew at 4.8% annually, according to the Census Bureau. (Oregon grew at 1% during the same time period.) If that continues, the current population will double in 15 years, quadruple in 30 years, and be sixteen times the size in 45 years. Cancer doesn't grow that fast.
At current rates, it is but a matter of time before US 97 is supplanted by Interstate 7.
In the 1990s, Deschutes County's population increased 42%. Another decade like that and it will be time to rename the place LaBendmondville.
It's not only the number of people and houses that are increasing, but also the size of the houses. Compare the millworker houses in old Bend to the monstrosities in the gated "communities." The census figures only include people who reside in the county. Housing is growing faster than the population, as many of these dwellings are second trophy houses.
Perhaps excellent land use, transportation, air quality, water quality planning can mitigate the worst effects of this growth (look how well it has done so far!), but any way you measure your quality of life: commute times, air quality, classroom size, water purity, potholes, taxes or elbow room, quality of life decreases as population increases.
These population projections assume nothing will be done to limit Oregon's population. This specter doesn't have to be.
A new University of Oregon poll found that 65% of Oregonians think the population is just right; 29% think the state is already overcrowded. Only 2% think that the state's population is too small.
This two percent must be the developers and their chorus—bankers, suppliers of asphalt and house parts, media moguls who want increased circulation or viewers so they can charge higher advertising rates, and—most insanely—chamber of commerce- and booster-types drawn from the ranks of downtown small independent retailers who promote growth to the point that the mega-box stores locate on edge (for now) of town and blow them away.
Just how economically important are these developments? The boosters say the economy runs on development, and if growth stops the town dies (a cancer cell operates under the same philosophy). Economists I've talked to speculate the population increase accounts for no more than 10% of the economy. (It's undoubtedly a bigger drag because it doesn't pay its own way.) No one knows for sure, because society has been afraid to ask these questions.
If the grow-or-die thesis is correct, then we have an economy that measures success by the rate we foul our own nest. The growth machine isn't necessary for economic health. Western Europe and Japan have a quality of life comparable to ours, and without population growth.
Whatever amount of the economy is dependent on population and consumption growth, let's identify and convert it to sustainable economic pursuits. The developers of forests and farmlands can be made into redevelopers of downtowns and neighborhoods where people come before cars.
While these population projections need not come true, they are based on the reasonable assumption that government will do everything it can do to not only accommodate, but encourage growth. That is exactly what government is doing. Tax dollars subsidize growth.
The average new house in Oregon receives at least $33,000 in tax subdues that aren't paid back by the developer or owner.
Rather than paying to foul their own nests as they are now, taxpayers could feather their collective nests by buying up all the undeveloped land scheduled for development and dedicate it to parks for people and nature reserves for fish and wildlife. It would be less expensive than subsidizing growth, not to mention maintaining and improving the current quality of life.
Growth management is the equivalent to giving painkillers to a patient. While it is very important to relieve symptoms, it is as, or more, important to treat the cause of the disease. Only the end of growth—not slow growth—can maintain quality of life. A 1% growth rate results in a doubling of the population in a human lifetime. Is that what you want for your grandchildren?
Why is growth happening if 94% of Oregonians don't want it? You get what you elect and pay for. Elected officials facilitate growth because they are not held accountable for growth at the polls. They dole out tax dollars to developers because developers make campaign contributions.
Growth is neither desirable, nor inevitable. Tax dollars that subsidize growth can be redirected or not collected.
Elected officials that encourage growth can be ousted.
Since its inception Bend has always been the crossroads of Oregon. Deschutes County is at a figurative crossroads now. One path is a Palm Springs with studded tires. The other is a path that has no counterpart in this country. It is a path that we can see, that we know to be better, but will take some courage to take.
The only thing more radical than not growing in growing.