PROMOTING A BYWAY
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
Descriptions of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway run from "gorgeous" to "unique," touching along the way on "absolutely gorgeous" and "impressive."
"It's an amazing road," said Susan Jurasz of Sea Reach, a conceptual design and advertising firm based in Rose Lodge.
Jurasz and several colleagues were part of a 16-person group that traveled the loop byway from Island City in late July, sharing ideas and problems for future promotion, signs and advertising of the journey.
Depending on the route taken, the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway covers 200 to 300 miles, including pieces of interstate, state highways, and miles of Forest Service road. As one description of the byway said in 2001, traveling it in a day takes you from cactus to glaciers.
But the byway, identified in July 2001 as Oregon's third All-American Road, hasn't had the promotion the Oregon Travel Information Council and local promoters would like to see.
Thus the July tour by school bus along the route.
Members of the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, the Eastern Oregon Byway Coalition and numerous other agencies and organizations worked with the Oregon Travel Information Council to bring together players with interest in the byway.
The Travel Information Council has hired Sea Reach to work on a conceptual plan for the byway.
"We also plan to do public relations work and promotional work, and find good people to fund the work," said Cheryl Gribskov of the information council.
From Sea Reach, Jurasz sees the work as what she terms exhibit planning and design everything from signs (Sea Reach works on the state's beaver boards) to coming up with the stories to tell of people, geology, events and activities that have and are occurring along the byway route.
Jurasz describes it as capturing the "look and feel" of what is "unique to the byway and to this part of the world."
It will be, she said, a challenge.
"In a day's drive, you have everything."
While Sea Reach has until October to present its conceptual plan for the byway to the Travel Information Council, Jurasz's thinking is already coming together.
A selling point for the byway, she said, may well be "the extremeness of the variety."
"It was a long day, but it was interesting," Mike Buchanan, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation District 13, said of the trip.
Buchanan, while not involved in promoting the byway, does have technical assistance to provide planners since ODOT has as a mission to take care of traffic safety and any exits from the highways and entrances to the highways concern them.
"My crew will do more scenic byway signing this fall," Buchanan said, "primarily at junctions."
The additional signs will help travelers feel they are still on the correct route, he said, and the posts and signs have been provided by the information council. The sign logo by the byway, he added, was designed by Donna Mattson, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Enterprise.
For Buchanan, who said he was a bit out of step with the rest on the tour and their discussion of future promotion, there was still a sense of enjoyment.
"It's certainly a beautiful route," he said.
But Buchanan is also a highway man, a person who deals with the day to day issues of keeping the roads open and safe for everyone. The byway, and its future as a draw for those from somewhere else, is still in its infancy.
"Any of this stuff can be put together conceptually," he said. "The actual on-the-ground stuff is always more difficult."
Which is where Gribskov steps back in. Her travel information council was the one to hire Sea Reach and will be responsible for finding support for funding improvements to scenic byway, anything from informational signs to community kiosks to further brochures.
"We don't have the budget to maintain what we put up," Gribskov said, which is why the council will be searching out byway supporters to make longer-term commitments to paying for and maintaining additions to the route.
Gribskov believes the byway, once better developed, will be an area for people to spend three to four days exploring.
"I think it's really important to help (visitors) understand something, so they will want to stay," she said, a sentiment echoed by Mandy Cole of the Oregon Travel Commission who was also on the tour.
Her commission sponsored the trip, involving everyone, including a representative of Northwest Travel Magazine, in sharing ideas about the route.
While the commission promotes travel to all of Oregon, Cole noted that many requests come from potential visitors who are specifically interested in off-the-beaten-path areas and trips.
The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, she said, fits that description perfectly and is a perfect match for the 60,000 to 80,000 travel information requests that the commission has received over the past six months.
Those requests, she added, include many from Oregonians who are looking for an interesting vacation closer to home.
All those involved agree that the byway is an amazing piece of real estate, a memorable experience for any visitor. But it needs an identity and more publicity, even within Oregon.
A trip to the byway's web site deep within the federal byways site, lists significant landmarks the Canal Fire, Tenderfoot Wagon Road, the fish weir on the Imnaha river, the Seven Devils Mountain seen from Hells Canyon overlook. The stops in Joseph, Halfway, Baker City and along Union County highways aren't even mentioned.
Jurasz, at Sea Reach, has a firm grasp of the work ahead, but sees it as a challenge to help out a wonderful area.
She knows what she could be facing, since Sea Reach is working on a similar conceptual plan for North Dakota's Sheyenne River Valley.
Asked what the draw is to that part of North Dakota, far from the Black Hills, Jurasz smiled and chuckled.
"It's a curvy road," she said.