Idahoans flock to Oregon border town


by Associated Press


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:32 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 14 at 12:33 PM

ONTARIO, Ore. -- About 18,000 people can be found inside this Snake River farming town on a typical weekday afternoon. But when Ontario residents put on their nightcaps and blow out the bedside candles, figuratively speaking, the population will have dropped to 11,000.

The difference? Idaho shoppers. They flock to Ontario because Idaho imposes a 6 percent sales tax while Oregon has none.

"They are absolutely welcome here; we want them to shop," says Ontario Mayor Joe Dominick, who'd like them to do one more thing: Build homes and become residents of Ontario.

Ontario has a sluggish 0.5 percent annual growth rate, while the Snake River's Idaho side has been growing for years, he said.

Before the recent economic downturn, Dominick once counted 26 homes under construction in Fruitland, Idaho, and only six in Ontario.

Larry Tuttle, an Ontario builder, thinks the Idaho-Oregon construction ratio has been closer to 10-to-1. He's a partner in Maeda-Tuttle Construction, a 30-year-old Ontario company that builds on both sides of the river.

Real estate prices often are 25 percent to 50 percent higher in and around Ontario, owing to the contrast between Oregon's tough land-use laws and their absence in Idaho, Tuttle says.

When Holy Rosary Hospital in Ontario hires new physicians and staff members, they often choose to live across the river, says Jim Jensen, the Malheur County economic development director.

"There is such a limited selection of houses available in this area, they automatically go to Idaho," he said.

But the land-use situation is a double-edged sword, adds Jensen, who can see the Idaho side of the Snake River from his Ontario office.

"There are places in Idaho where they've placed subdivisions that are absolutely eating up prime farmland," he said. "We don't want to do that."

The situation is such that Ontario police must underwrite law enforcement services for 18,000 people with tax revenues generated by 11,000, said Mayor Dominick. Meanwhile, no money is available to build a juvenile lockup. Young offenders, some of them street gang members, "get a pat on the hand and sent home to parents who may or may not care," he said.

A typical traffic count on Idaho Avenue linking Oregon and Idaho is a whopping 35,000 vehicles a day. Jensen says many are shoppers hailing from such Idaho towns as Caldwell, New Plymouth, Fruitland, Emmett, Payette, Council and Cambridge.

"In that general area, you are probably looking at 80,000 to 100,000 people," he said.

They come to prowl an Ontario Super Wal-Mart, a Home Depot, a Bi-Mart and an assortment of mom-and-pop furniture, appliance and clothing stores, says John Breidenbach, executive director of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Some businesses wouldn't be here without the proximity of so many Idaho towns and the sales tax situation, he said.

Ontario bills itself as the "Onion Capital of the World," and roughly 11,300 acres of irrigated onions sprout outside the city limits. Last year, onions brought $63.3 million to the region, said Steven Norberg, an Oregon State University field crops extension agent.

Ontario is something of an oddity because it is within the Mountain time zone while most of Oregon is an hour behind in the Pacific zone. People here speak of "your time" - the Pacific time zone - and "our time" - Mountain time. That curious state of being grew out of a 1923 federal decision to uncomplicate service by the Oregon Short Line Railroad, which served the region during the Jazz Age.

So now, people here sometimes wear watches with two time zones on the face, and nearly everybody is accustomed to confused out-of-towners showing up an hour late for lunch. But the real difficulty is Ontario's distance from the rest of Oregon's population centers.

Attending a meeting in Salem requires a 978-mile roundtrip drive, only to rediscover that many Oregonians don't know Ontario exists, Dominick says. The little onion town with genuine hometown charm probably deserves better, he says.

"Everybody here knows everybody, and we still smile and say hello to each other," he said.