NPR reporters are returning to their hometowns this summer to find out how they’ve changed – from job prospects to schools and how people see their community and the country.
Once home to thriving timber and fishing industries, Gold Beach, Oregon now subsists on tourists and retirees looking for a quiet beach, a nice river trip and, in a few cases, marijuana.
I left Gold Beach after graduating from high school in 1985. Back then, it was a blue-collar town dominated by the timber industry.
Returning 32 years later there are fewer log trucks on the roads, the big mill outside town is gone and the economy has fundamentally changed.
Before I get into details, let’s address the question everyone has about Gold Beach. I’m sorry to say there is no “gold” on the “beach”. There was some near the mouth of the Rogue River but it was mined in the late 1800s, according to the Oregon Historical Society.
A century later, a different extractive industry was at the center of the local economy. Most of my classmate’s parents worked in jobs connected to logging. My dad, for example, worked for the U.S. Forest Service where he helped manage the two-thirds of Curry County that is federal land.
Back then, timber was king and it seemed like the industry always would be at the center of Gold Beach’s economic life.
“It was our number one employer at the time. People came from everywhere to work at the mill,” says Gold Beach City Councilor Tamie Kaufman. She’s a friend and former classmate of mine.
Recently Kaufman and I walked around an old plywood mill site, a few miles up the Rogue River from Gold Beach. The mill closed after logging slowed down in nearby federal forests. One factor was environmental concerns and efforts to preserve the spotted owl.
The mill burned in 1991 and never re-opened. Now the site has, ironically, been taken over by trees.
Without the wages and regular overtime the mill paid, Tamie says the region has struggled economically. Poverty is a persistent problem.
At the grade school I attended, 74 percent of the students now qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Asked if people want the mill back, Kaufman says the old-timers do but she’s not so sure about those who’ve moved to the city recently. “They’re probably used to our quiet, sleepy town and have moved here to retire in a quiet place,” says Kaufman.
Today Gold Beach is a retirement destination thanks to relatively cheap homes, a new hospital, low taxes and stunning natural beauty.
You can find solitude on beaches that stretch for miles. The mountains reach down to the coastline and even in town you can see osprey nesting in tall fir trees. Then there’s the Rogue River, which is famous for salmon fishing.
Commercial fishing was an important part of the economy three decades ago too. But that’s declined along with the timber industry.
“What we used to have here was a fairly robust ocean troll fishery,” says one-time commercial fisherman John Wilson. He remembers lining up behind 17 other fishermen to deliver the day’s catch to the local cannery in the 1970s.
Now the cannery is closed and the harbor is nearly empty.
Wilson still has a 26-foot, fiberglass fishing boat but he hasn’t been out on the ocean this year. He says there’s no salmon fishing season off Gold Beach because of restrictions in place to boost runs on a nearby river.
Scott McNair says they take about 35,000 tourists on boat-trips up the Rogue River each year during the summer months.
“Businesses that survive off a three-month season have to be careful in their expenses,” says McNair, because that high season income has to keep the business afloat all year. For that reason he says tourism can’t provide the steady paychecks the timber industry did.
Across the river, just outside city limits, a more controversial industry is emerging. In 2014, Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana.
Growing up in Gold Beach, I always knew pot was for sale but it’s strange to see it marketed openly now.
Club Sockeye is named for a species of salmon. The building has a lighted green cross, “To show the people that this is a place that’s cannabis-friendly,” says co-owner Earl Crumrine.
He says business is good this time of year, “We’re doing about $50,000 to 60,000 a month.” But, like tourism, it’s seasonal.
Club Sockeye employs about 30 people — most of them part-time, says Crumrine. And the wages are low — close to the local minimum of $10 an hour.
The business has become a new source of much-needed revenue for Curry County though. “They are now collecting three percent and it’s over $14,000 a year that the county is going to get from my taxes,” Crumrine says.
County Commissioner Court Boice, a Republican who opposed legalizing marijuana, says the county does need new sources of revenue. Voters rejected a series of tax increases for fire and law enforcement in recent years, as policy-makers tried to make up for lost logging revenue.
Boice told me, “When you were growing up here we had 16 road deputies. Now we have about 6 or 7.”
That’s a half-dozen deputies patrolling a county the size of Rhode Island.
Curry County’s population is small — 22,713 is the 2016 U.S. Census estimate — but it’s grown by more than 25 percent over the 30 years the number of deputies has declined.
Still Boice is reluctant to label the current situation a crisis. “It is significant enough that people are recognizing that that is something that we can’t just overlook or we will lose the reason we’re living here,” says Boice.
Around town the term “quality of life” is mentioned often. Usually that refers to easy access to hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. But quality of life doesn’t mean much if you can’t earn a living.
That’s why many conservative leaders in Curry County and across the West want more local control of federal forests. They want to revive the timber industry and bring family-wage jobs back to their communities. President Trump promised as much during a Eugene, Oregon campaign stop last year.
But even in Gold Beach where support for the timber business remains strong there are doubts the industry could ever come back.
“The infrastructure to support that—the mills, the processing areas—all of those are gone,” says Gold Beach City Administrator Jodi Fritts-Matthey. And she says an entire generation has grown up now without parents who worked in the mills.
She’s focused on boosting tourism and extending the summer high season in Gold Beach through the city’s Visitor Center.
Overall, the economic prospects for my hometown of Gold Beach, Oregon look dim. Fortunately there’s always the beautiful beach, the river and the forests to console those who still live here.