When Lawnae Hunter moved to Bend, she wasn't expecting to challenge the status quo. A former waitress and single mother who attended community college in Aptos, Calif., Hunter worked her way up the real estate food chain and developed the largest real estate company in Central California, Hunter Prudential Realty. The company was eventually sold to a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway.
After the sale, Hunter was looking for a change of pace. In 2003, she bought a house on Awbrey Butte and in 2007 moved to Bend full time. She brought her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren and joined one daughter already living here.
"We wanted to raise the kids in the healthiest environment possible," says Hunter, whose energetic and effervescent personality suggests a woman younger than her 61 years. But Hunter, who now owns the small real estate company Hunter Properties and Plus Property Management, felt compelled to action when she attended the 2006 economic forecast. California was already in economic decline, but instead of predicting increased unemployment and a decrease in property values, the forecasters were calling for a continued boom.
Hunter wasn't buying it.
"I took a customer, a real estate developer, to [the forecast]. He said, 'Let's go buy, buy, buy!' I said, 'what you just heard is inaccurate. You can't be investing in this market at that level today.'"
Although much of Central Oregon's real estate industry was blindly capitalizing on the housing boom, Hunter was more pragmatic.
"I felt like there wasn't really an arms-length, academically prepared economic forecast," says Hunter. "Had we not had this huge change in the lending market, it probably would have been fine. But the information that was being disseminated was being used by people to make investments who later lost millions."
Hunter, who previously served on the city of Santa Maria Planning Commission, found out that Central Oregon's economic forecasting lacked hard facts.
"No one was studying Central Oregon," she says. "It's important for the public and businesses to have no-spin information that's really concentrated on Central Oregon."
So, Hunter called Dr. Bill Watkins, a friend and economist, then with the University of Santa Barbara (UCSB), and asked him to conduct an economic study on Central Oregon.
"I said sure, and proceeded to ignore her," Watkins says.
But Hunter persisted.
"Typical Lawnae," says Hunter.
Watkins agreed, and Hunter organized a group of local business people to fund the project, which operated under the UCSB nonprofit umbrella.
"I thought, if we can fund this from the private side, we can get academically prepared information."
Watkins began his economic forecast for Central Oregon in 2008. After nearly one year of research with two other Ph. D. economists, Watkins presented his findings during the first Central Oregon Economic Forecast Project in January 2009 for 275 people at the Tower Theatre. By that point, everything Hunter had suspected was coming true - the economy had tanked and unemployment was on the rise. Still, the forecast Watkins gave was more solemn than expected. Watkins predicted a 15 percent unemployment rate, increased job loss and decline in home prices. The unemployment rate in Deschutes County was then 11.3 percent.
It was a tough pill to swallow for some. "One thing I learned during the recession is that some people don't want good data," says Watkins. "But if I sugarcoat it, you can't make good decisions." By April of 2009, unemployment hit 15 percent.
Now that Central Oregon had a real economic forecast, Hunter had mixed feelings. On one hand, businesses and individuals had a realistic picture of the economy. On the other hand, the prognosis wasn't good - especially, she says, for the younger generation leaving Central Oregon for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
"A lot of people are asking, 'Are the opportunities for advancement here for me, or do I have to go to another community?' We've lost a variety of people who just can't afford to stay here."
At that point, Hunter moved from academics to advocacy. She created the Deschutes Economic Alliance, a group of local leaders with the goal of seeking an objective, coherent vision for the economic future of the Deschutes economy.
"We've seen a lot of angst and trauma in the community," says Dave Lewis, CEO of Jorno International and a member of the advisory committee for the Deschutes Economic Alliance. "If something isn't done, we face a continuing boom/bust cycle. Everybody was standing around waiting for a recovery, but business leaders need to try new things to make a change."
Lewis met Hunter five years ago and serves alongside her as a board member for Innovation Theatre Works. He jumped at the chance to reshape the community's economic future.
"These are leaders in the community," says Lewis of the Deschutes Economic Alliance advisory board members. "When they stand up in front of a group of people, things get done."
The latest accomplishment of the Alliance was enlisting renowned economic development strategy consultant, Delore Zimmerman, to create a three-year strategic plan for Central Oregon's economic future.
"The advantage of Delore is that he looks from the stratosphere," says Hunter. "He takes the best ideas and matches them with places and people."
Zimmerman created a strategic plan, the "1,000-Day Road Map," which outlines initiatives for creating sustainable economic growth in Central Oregon.
"The community needs to focus on a few things that will create jobs and create more opportunities," says Zimmerman. Included in his recommendations are fostering more start-up businesses, creating business partnerships with the Warm Springs tribe and developing a world-class university and applied research center.
Zimmerman presented his 1000-Day Road Map at the most recent economic forecast in January. Of the 375 attendees, nearly half signed up to be on committees for the initiatives.
Zimmerman gives Hunter much of the credit for the Alliance's nascent success.
"She's got this rare ability to take a look at a situation and then mobilize people to see what the possibilities are," says Zimmerman. "She's big into possibility thinking. That kind of leadership is pretty rare."
It's no coincidence that visitors to Hunter's office are greeted by a wooden plaque that reads "Possibilities with a view." Hunter came up with the slogan after tiring of hearing the old saw that Bend is just, "poverty with a view." She had the plaques manufactured locally and now hands them out to friends and associates.
"Yes, Central Oregon's beautiful. But that's just one piece of the pie. We've got to elevate ourselves up and change that," she says.
In addition to owning two companies, and her work with the Central Oregon Economic Forecast Project and the Deschutes Economic Alliance, Hunter serves on the boards of Innovation Theatre Works and the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association. But when I ask if she'd ever trade all of this for retirement, she shrugs off the suggestion. "I like being engaged with life in the community," she says.
"She never seems to tire," says Davis, "I never see her negative or discouraged. She lifts everybody's spirits even when you don't think it can happen."
Hunter seems to attract fans wherever she goes. She was previously named Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman of the Year in Santa Maria, and although she's been in Bend just a few years, she's made quick work of attacking Central Oregon's economic future and mobilizing the community in the process. For these reasons, Lawnae Hunter is the Source Weekly's 2011 Woman of the Year.