Bend's Highflying Economy Takes A Nose Dive Two years ago, the jobless rate in Bend, Ore., was at a record low, thanks to urban refugees drawn by the region's scenery and recreation. Now unemployment is at an all-time high, and workers are heading back to school to learn new skills in hopes that new jobs will appear.
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Bend's Highflying Economy Takes A Nose Dive

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Bend's Highflying Economy Takes A Nose Dive

Bend's Highflying Economy Takes A Nose Dive

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Just two years ago, the small Oregon city of Bend was begging for workers because it had been named one of America's best places to live. People impressed with its dramatic backdrop, the Cascade Mountains, and its opportunities for outdoor recreation moved there in droves. Now thousands are out of work and the unemployment rate has doubled. NPR's Howard Berkes profiles one of Bend's newly unemployed.

HOWARD BERKES: Jay Swanzy seems uncomfortable with the conversation because it's not about work. It's about being out of work. He hears people…

Mr. JAY SWANZY: Complain about work? At least you know you're going to get up in the morning and go. And now you get up in the morning and don't know what you're going to do or what's the right way to go, the wrong way to go. So it's actually worse.

BERKES: It sounds like being out of work is work.

Mr. SWANZY: It is. It's a full time job and a lot more stress.

BERKES: Swanzy sits at a wooden kitchen table with his wife, Frankie. They both cradle cups of coffee. And out the window behind them are skyscraping Ponderosa pine and bushy junipers.

Bend, Oregon has been Jay Swanzy's home since age six. That's 50 years ago. And he spent 27 years in woodworking mills, which had regular layoffs, but his last two pink slips were different.

Mr. SWANZY: That first time I was out six months. And this time, I don't know what it's going to be with the economy the way it is.

BERKES: The most recent layoff was about two months ago, and it was especially painful because Swanzy had successfully made the transition from the past to the future. He went from the dying but once dominant wood products industry to aircraft manufacturing, which is part of Bend's recent economic boom.

Mr. SWANZY: I felt it was really a good, stable place, because they came in here and bought the little plant we had and they were putting a lot of investments in it. So I felt it was about as secure a job as I could get. I had good hopes for the future, but…

BERKES: Swanzy looks down instead of finishing the thought, his gray mustache and beard tilting to a plaid pearl-button shirt. Frankie chimes in with a story about the sealed envelope Jay had been given at work.

Ms. FRANKIE SWANZY: He handed it to me. I says, did you look at it? And he says, no. I was going to let you open it. I says, are you still hoping? He says, well, there's always hope. But it was like your chest just falls to your stomach when you see that, no, you're no longer employed, you know. Didn't make it.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BERKES: This is where Swanzy used to work, the trim and drill shop at Cessna's small plant at the Bend Airport. It's still a busy place with layoff survivors using drills and sanders to trim excess composite material from molded parts. It's just not as busy was it was.

Doug Oliver is Cessna's spokesman.

Mr. DOUG OLIVER (Spokesman, Cessna): Our sales people are quite busy. Our demonstration aircraft are quite busy. But because of uncertainty over the future of the economy, people are still a little hesitant to sign on the dotted line.

BERKES: This is how Jay Swanzy puts it.

Mr. SWANZY: The economy is just down so low that nobody's buying anything. And it's affecting everybody, from the guy buying a $5 cup of latte to the guy buying a $600,000 airplane. You know what? They're all being hit the same.

BERKES: Cessna and other aircraft manufacturers and suppliers are in Bend due to a transplanted Californian who has a passion for living there. Lance Neibauer moved his airplane business to Bend in 1991 because there were clear skies for test flights, an available runway and mountains and high desert perfect for skiing and other outdoor fun.

Mr. LANCE NEIBAUER (Aircraft Business Owner): Three of the top six fly fishing rivers all go right through here. A world class rock climbing area is at Smith Rocks. No place is perfect, but this one is probably as close as you're going to get.

BERKES: Neibauer's aircraft business spawned others, and they generated 1,000 jobs at one point. The population tripled since his arrival to 80,000 people, many also seeking scenery and recreation. Unemployment hit record lows. Now, it's rocketed to a record high 13 percent, transforming Jay Swanzy from working man to statistic.

Ms. BOBBIE FAUST (Employment Counselor): The first page is a little bit of general information about you. Okay?

BERKES: So Swanzy now goes where most of the unemployed go.

Ms. FAUST: Cool with that?

Mr. SWANZY: Yeah, it all looks pretty basic.

Ms. FAUST: Okay.

BERKES: To a state employment office, where counselor Bobbie Faust guides Swanzy through paperwork that could lead to Computer-Aided Design training and a shot at another job. Faust believes Swanzy is among the best candidates she has.

Ms. FAUST: He has a good work history. He has definable skills. He has excellent references about his quality. If there were manufacturing jobs open, he'd be there.

BERKES: But that's a big if in Bend, Oregon right now.

Ms. FAUST: This is a very, very tough job market. There are very, very few jobs advertised. And so it's going to be a difficult challenge for him.

BERKES: And what do you think about kind of what you've heard today and your prospects?

Mr. SWANZY: It sounds promising in the long run. I know it's going to be a rough go for a while, but I've got to look at the long road, not immediately, to get something going. So, it's sounding good.

Ms. FAUST: I will see you next week.

Mr. SWANZY: See you next week.

Ms. FAUST: And call me again, if there's anything…

Mr. SWANZY: Okay…

BERKES: Jay Swanzy begins his college computer classes this week. Stimulus package funding for that, along with unemployment, his wife's paycheck, her medical insurance and a refinanced mortgage should keep the couple solvent at least through the summer. But it'll take a broad economic recovery to restore the promise of Bend, Oregon's boom.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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