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The Perils of "Uniqueness"



“Unique” is the most overworked word in the advertising copywriter’s lexicon. Aside from that, I guess there isn’t anything wrong with telling the world that your area is “unique” – unless you start believing it yourself.

We in Central Oregon spent the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s bragging about what a “unique outdoor recreation paradise” we had here. Our scenery was uniquely beautiful, we claimed. Our ski mountain was uniquely mountainous, our bike trails were uniquely bikeable, our golf courses were uniquely golfable, our rivers and lakes were uniquely swarming with fish, and on and on and on.

We repeated the mantra so many times that many of us came to believe it. That in turn allowed us to convince ourselves that people would make any sacrifice and spend any amount of money to own a house here.

Well, folks, here’s a news flash: We are not unique. I just got back from a trip to western Montana, where I was reminded of how un-unique we are.

I flew in to Missoula and made base camp near the little town of Polson, which lies at the southern end of Flathead Lake. From there I explored the Flathead River and the adjacent countryside to the north and east.

Mountain scenery? Dude, they got mountain scenery that’ll knock your socks off. It makes Central Oregon look like Iowa.

Fishing? The lake (the largest natural one west of the Mississippi) and some of the rivers in the area are excellent.

Whitewater rafting and kayaking? Got it.

Mountain biking? Check. Golf? Check.

Climate? Well, it does get pretty cool in the winter (the average January high is about 30 degrees) but the summers are sunny and pleasant, and they’re long and warm enough to grow cherries. Which the local farmers do, by the billions.

The town of Bigfork, at the north end of the lake, is full of those little cutesy-boutiquey shops that tourists love to wander in and out of. There’s a professional summer repertory theater company, which is more than Bend can boast. As an added attraction, Glacier National Park is at the back door. And I hear tell there’s excellent skiing at Whitefish, a short drive to the north.

The area is more remote than Central Oregon, true, but still easily accessible. Horizon has regular flights to Missoula from Seattle and Portland.

The point of all this isn’t that Central Oregon is a bad place or that western Montana is a better place. (I’m definitely not about to move there anytime soon.) The point is that Bend – and Polson and Whitefish and Bigfork – aren’t offering anything that a hundred other pretty places in the intermountain West don’t offer.

So if we want to build a sustainably prosperous local economy, we need to come up with something really unique to market – such as, maybe, a uniquely well-educated and motivated workforce or uniquely excellent public schools.

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