BUSINESSES WITHOUT BORDERS
A new breed of businessperson one that figures to be an important force in economic development has emerged on the Wallowa County scene.
They're people who work out of home offices, and the Internet-ready computer is a primary tool of their trade. They do business far beyond the borders of the place they call home.
They're called Lone Eagles, and their number has been growing steadily since the late-1990s, when the Internet boom reached a peak.
"Lone Eagles are people who work long distance for another corporation, or have their own business but can place it anywhere. They're not place-dependent," said Lisa Dawson, executive director of the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District.
The NEOEDD started looking into Lone Eagles as a business demographic back in 2001, according to Marcy Strazer, an NEOEDD economic development specialist.
During a process called Wallowa County Future Search, local business, civic and government leaders met to discuss the area's economic future.
"It was a diverse group that came together to discuss economic development. Many who were involved said they knew Lone Eagle-type people," Strazer said.
Future Search spun off a local committee interested in marketing Wallowa County to businesses, families and individuals.
Part of the group's job was to look at the Lone Eagle movement, and discover ways to capitalize upon it.
"The committee identified recruitment of Lone Eagles as a priority in diversifying and improving economic and social conditions," Strazer said.
With a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service a $2,500 grant from the Northeast Oregon Alliance, the NEOEDD mounted a study of Lone Eagles who had established headquarters in the area.
The 30 Lone Eagles who were queried in the market research project represented only a portion of those living in the county, said Dawson.
"Thirty isn't by any means all of them," she commented. "We know there are more. We were surprised at the number of them that are out there."
Information on Wallowa County's Lone Eagles is still being compiled, but the NEOEDD reached some definite conclusions during the interviews.
Basically, Lone Eagles are defined as highly mobile business people who derive at least 75 percent of their income from sources outside the county. Most rely on information technologies to sell their products or services.
"The concept of highly mobile' is an important one," Strazer said. "Some local businesses may derive a large part of their income from outside the county, but they don't fit the picture because they're manufacturing a product here (in Wallowa County)."
As a rule, Lone Eagles don't come to Wallowa County alone. The study found that the average Lone Eagle household size is 2.7 persons.
"When you think of Lone Eagles, you might be thinking of single people, but several have families, or moved here with older family members," Dawson said.
As workers, Wallowa County's Lone Eagles are diverse, though two major occupational groups were identified during the research project.
A large number of Lone Eagles are involved in publishing, writing and editing, and outdoor recreation businesses such as guide and outfitting services. Incomes are generally higher than average local wages and salaries.
The ways in which Lone Eagles "discover" Wallowa County are varied. In that respect, the independents fall into three different categories:
Those who grew up in the county, including many who moved away and came back.
Those who had vacationed in or otherwise visited the area and decided to re-discover it later in life.
Those who were looking for specific things in the area they've chosen to live.
"The third group has researched the area very well. They took a strong initiative in coming here on their own," said Strazer. "They're well-prepared. They have no illusions about the economic challenges they'll be facing."
For most Lone Eagles, a community's livability is a key issue, the study found.
"The county's quality of life provides the potential to continue to attract these types of workers and businesses," said Strazer.
Dean Waters, a Lone Eagle who operates an Internet magazine called Off-Road.Com from his home office in Joseph, said Wallowa County's rural, pastoral environment is a primary attraction for him and his family.
"We wanted our son to go to high school here instead of the big city," he said. "Plus, the outdoor recreational opportunities are very important to us."
Waters was born and raised in Joseph. He moved away after graduating from high school, living successively in San Francisco and Las Vegas. He worked as a network engineer for a telecommunications company.
He started Off-Road.Com, an advertiser-supported e-zine for off-road vehicle enthusiasts, as a hobby about 14 years ago.
"I always hoped it could be a full time thing. Then I could live wherever I wanted," he said.
About a year-and-half ago, he and his wife Pattie decided the time was right. They moved to Joseph, setting up headquarters for the business in their home.
A partner, David Chicas, contributes from Las Vegas. Pattie Waters oversees the magazine's advertising sales.
The magazine covers off-road events around the nation, and also features product reviews, articles on the latest off-road technology, and interviews with the sport's prominent personalities.
Advertising, like editorial content, comes overwhelmingly from outside Wallowa County.
"Pretty much all of our income is from non-local sources," said Waters.
The arrangement works well, though Waters, like many of the Lone Eagles surveyed, reports a reduction in family income since leaving Las Vegas.
"Before I started doing this full time, I had another job," he noted.
Most Lone Eagles taking part in the NEOEDD study reported a loss of income as they set up shop in the county. The average reduction was figured at 21 percent.
Despite that, the Lone Eagle lifestyle suits Waters. He said he especially likes the convenience of a home-based business.
"It's nice to not have to get up, do the commute and fight traffic. You walk in the other room, and you're there," he said.
On the down side, he said Lone Eagles can get to feeling, well, lonely.
"An office can be a social place, but you don't have that when you're working at home," he said.
Lone Eagles do not present a wholesale cure for Wallowa County's seasonal, slow-growing economy, but their presence has a positive impact, the NEOEDD feels.
Lone Eagles have good incomes, add to the population and support local services.
Wallowa County will continue its effort to recruit them, Dawson said.
"If we can get some more people like that, they can add significantly to our economy.''