Bend It Like Oregon

Fast-Growing Western Cities Are Snatching Up California’s People and Ambitions

Bend It Like Oregon | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

In search of the California dream, people are leaving the state for places like Bend, Oregon (pictured above). Columnist Joe Mathews explains why we’re seeing a mass migration from the Golden State. Ken Lund Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Californians live in an era of exodus. So, if you want to see the future of California’s people, you have to leave the state.

I got an unexpected glimpse of that future during a late summer visit to Bend, a small city among the Cascades of east-central Oregon.

I spent much of my time in Bend at its newest public school on the city’s southeastern edge. Caldera High School, and its two pristine baseball fields, hosted the regional tournament for the best 14-years-and-under all-star baseball teams in the West.

My hometown team, from South Pasadena, had won the Southern California championship for the first time in the 72-year history of our Little League. In Bend, our children’s friends would compete against the champions of Northern California and of nine other states—Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaiʻi.

That might sound like a diverse Western gathering. But the families of the other teams included so many former Californians that the whole thing felt a little like a Golden State reunion.

As we watched the baseball games, construction crews were building a large community of new homes beyond the outfield fences. I marveled openly at the growth.

That’s no surprise. In recent years, departures from California have accelerated—contributing to a historic decline in our population, and historic growth for neighboring states and their newer communities.

Bend itself is a remarkable example. The city has nearly doubled its population since 2000, topping 100,000 during a pandemic surge. And Bend has made plans, and built infrastructure, to accommodate even faster growth, with some projections suggesting 300,000 people could live there by the middle of this century.

Many of the new arrivals in Bend, a local restauranteur explained, come from two groups of pilgrims: Californians and Mormons. (Bend once ranked No. 4 on a Deseret News list of best places to raise an LDS family outside of Utah.) They are looking for cheaper and larger houses (the median house price is $462,000), good schools, and better quality of life. For the outdoors-minded, the place is a paradise of good weather, parks, trails through the Cascades and High Desert, kayaking on the Deschutes River, and skiing on Mt. Bachelor.

Caldera High, where the baseball tournament took place, is a $140 million demonstration of Bend’s ambition. It’s a self-proclaimed “school of the future” with a glassy, open-concept design. It has every kind of program (from health sciences and engineering to language immersion) for its rapidly growing enrollment; 60-some classrooms and nearly as many “collaboration spaces”; a special staircase designed for sitting and hanging out; and a stunning central library that ties the whole structure together.

This father of three schoolchildren wishes California communities could build campuses of such ambition. But such schools would be too expensive given our land and construction costs—and also unnecessary, given the drop in the numbers of school-age children and public school students around the state.

As we watched the baseball games, construction crews were building a large community of new homes beyond the outfield fences. I marveled openly at the growth.

Parents from other teams in the tournament seemed less impressed. Many had previously lived in California, but now live in fast-growing places in the West that are much like Bend. That makes sense, of course. Building a great local baseball program is easiest in places with more new families, more children, and more prosperity.

South Pasadena opened the tournament against the Nevada champion team from Summerlin, a prosperous master-planned community in Las Vegas that has been among the fastest-growing places in the United States over the past 30 years. Next up was the Idaho champion, from Coeur d’Alene, the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the fastest-growing state in the nation, according to census data.

Other teams came from the Tucson metro region, which just surpassed 1 million in population, and Washington County, Utah, which has seen recent annual population increases of 5 percent. Our team suffered its first loss to Mercer Island, Washington, a highly prosperous community in metropolitan Seattle, the most common destination for people leaving California’s Bay Area.

Even the Northern California champion fit this growth pattern. That team was from Dublin—the East Bay exurb that was California’s fastest-growing city between 2010 and 2020. The Dublin squad—wearing uniforms of a very Irish green—eventually eliminated our team.

Leaving Caldera High to make the long drive home, we went south toward Crater Lake—a body of water that formed in a caldera, as the national park signs explained to us.

A caldera is the cauldron-like depression that forms when a volcano collapses after erupting powerfully and emptying out the magma chamber that had previously supported its weight.

It sounded much like California—a human volcano that is now spent, after spitting out people and their ambitions to neighboring states.


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