Bill Rautenstrauch

The Observer

Wallowa County, dubbed in tourist literature as "The Land of Winding Waters," is also a land of contradictions these days.

Employment rates in the area are favorable, perhaps more favorable than they've been in several years. Yet the average pay per job is the lowest of six Northeast Oregon Counties about $24,000.

And go figure: while many residents continue to scrape by on part-time and seasonal employment, a near-unprecedented real estate boom is taking place.

"The market has never been this volatile," Irv Nuss, mayor of Enterprise and a former real estate salesman, said recently. "There's always been properties that have been on the market three or four years, and there's some like that even now. But these days a lot of properties are selling even before the listing's been signed."

Statistics from the Wallowa County Board of Realtors bear out the fact that homes and acreage are being snapped up at a record-setting clip.

The statistics say that in 2004, Realtor-involved transactions amounted to $33.4 million. Then in 2005, the number shot skyward, with Realtors doing $52.7 million in business.

"We had a good year," said Lee Daggett, Board of Realtors Multiple Listing Service administrator and head of Daggett & Associates GMAC Real Estates.

So where's all the money coming from?

Most observers agree on this: affluent people from out of the area including retirees and "Lone Eagle" entrepreneurs are buying in.

"People are moving here. I guess this is our time to be discovered," said Rich Wandschneider, longtime county resident, local newspaper columnist and head of Fishtrap Inc.

Nuss, an Enterprise resident since 1948, sees it that way, too. In particular, he said he thinks Wallowa County has become a magnet for retirees.

"I think there are people out there who come to visit and like what they see," he said. "When they get close to retirement, they come back and try to buy something. Some of them move in right away, and others rent the property and save it for later."

While Daggett doesn't dispute non-locals are doing a lot of buying, he notes MLS statistics don't track buyer's places of residence.

"I know what I think, but I don't have statistical data," he said. "The only way you could find that out for sure would be to dig it up deed by deed."

Daggett added that he sees local transactions playing a role in the boom, even if a high percentage of transactions involves non-locals.

"There's been a lot that's happened within the community, people buying and upgrading homes," he said.

Daggett also said he thinks that in a day and age when urban people everywhere want nothing more than to escape the rat race, Wallowa County's recent spike in property sales is not unique.

"The entire Northwest had a lot of real estate pressure. Every market was strong, and we were no exception."

It almost goes without saying that in this poor section of Northeast Oregon, shortage of available property has sent real estate prices soaring.

A year ago in Enterprise, average cost of a house was $88,830, according to the MLS. Today it has increased to $113,873.

County wide last year, the average price of a house was $102,159; that figure has risen to $115,660 today, said Daggett.

And with desirable property harder to find, local Realtors are looking forward to continued good earnings.

"The demand's going to be here because of the shortage of inventory," Daggett said. "The prices will increase, and it

doesn't look like we'll have much (adverse) impact from interest rates."

Daggett said there are only 160 properties listed for sale currently, compared to almost 400 a year ago.

On the residential side, 66 houses are listed and sales are pending on 10 of them.

Daggett added the county is experiencing an acute shortage of vacant land for sale.

He said that as of last week there were 40 vacant lots listed, and 11 of those were under contract to sell.

"The availability of lots is real thin," he said.

Whether the real estate boom bodes good or ill is for the future to decide.

Nuss counts himself as one who thinks it doesn't do local residents justice.

He said he and his wife Louise have seen big changes in the Enterprise neighborhood where they have lived the past 25 years.

"We always had 18 or 20 kids living in the neighborhood, but now (residents) are all older. The town's not for youth. It's getting to be a more of a retirement town.

"The bad tradeoff is, young people are moving out because they can't find jobs. We need to stop that flow."

Wandschneider agrees that the boom has the potential to hurt working-class residents.

"It shows the difference between the wealthy and not-so-wealthy," he said. "If you're working for wages it might be hard on you. If you're depending on investments or dividends or rentals, maybe not so hard."

He noted that while Wallowa County real estate prices are rising, they still don't approach those of larger communities such as Bend, Portland or Seattle.

"There's a gap," he said. "It's huge enough to make us desirable."

It may be significant that Fishtrap, the county's non-profit literary group, has chosen "New Wealth in the Old West" as the topic for its winter conference.

It's a subject many people think worth debating. On the Fishtrap Web site, Wandschneider wrote recently that conversation on the New Wealth "makes eyes light up eyes of ranchers, writers, skiers, developers, buyers and sellers of property in Wallowa County, Lopez Island, Sun Valley, Roslyn, and across the land so we must have hit a nerve."