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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Baker City named one of ‘The Great Towns of America’


Baker City named one of ‘The Great Towns of America’

The community’s revitalization efforts and scenic beauty secure its spot in the book’s 2009 edition

The revitalization of historic downtown buildings, the completion of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, the Carnegie Crossroads Art Center renovation and the town’s scenic setting surrounded by mountains, rivers and outdoor recreation opportunities propelled Baker City into the 2009 edition of “The Great Towns of America.”

“Let me congratulate you all on the fact that Baker City has now gone all the way. There is no question in Joan or I’s mind that Baker City is in fact one of the 100 best towns in America,” said David Vokac, who along with Joan Vokac co-authored the second edition of “The Great Towns of America” released this week.

During a Monday press conference at the Geiser Grand Hotel, the Vokacs told local officials that Baker City was one of the 223 semi-finalists for the 1998 first edition of the book, but the completion of the Geiser Grand Hotel restoration, the Carnegie Crossroads Art Center, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and many other improvements in the historic downtown helped Baker City rise into the top 100 for the 2009 edition.

The book, which is available to check out at the local library or to purchase at Betty’s Books on Main Street, focuses on America’s best towns with populations under 80,000 that have the perfect combination of scenic location, charm, authentic town centers, culture and sense of place, according to the Vokacs.

They told those attending the press conference that one thing great small towns like Baker City, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Napa, Calif., and others featured in the book have in common is their connection to outdoor scenery.

“These are towns where you can walk a few blocks and experience a genuine closeness to nature,” said David Vokac. “You can’t do that in Boise, Portland or Spokane anymore.”

The Vokacs spent 50 years working in community development before they wrote their first edition of “The Great Towns of America.”

 In researching their book the couple drove more than 70,000 miles looking for towns that are not dependent on large population centers, such as Sausalito, Calif., which is a cool little art community with many of the attributes of a great American town, but it’s across the bridge from San Francisco, and is dependent on its larger neighbor.

Another thing the Vokacs said they like about Baker City is the sense they got from talking to community leaders, business owners and others about their commitment to making the town an even greater place, not just to visit, but to live, work and enjoy life.

“You are small enough each of you can contribute to the success and direction of the community,” said Joan Vokac.

Oregon is extremely well represented, with 12 towns listed among America’s great towns. In addition to Baker City, other Oregon towns in the book include Bend, Ashland, Grants Pass, Hood River and several towns along the Oregon Coast, including Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Newport, Florence, Bandon and Gold Beach.

Twelve towns dropped off the list from the 1998 edition and 12 new towns rose to the top 100 in the 2009 edition, including three Oregon towns — Baker City, Hood River and Astoria.

While California is No. 1 with 19 towns included in the top 100, many states on the East Coast, and across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, through much of the Midwest and as far west as Nevada didn’t have a single town that made the grade.

Oregon’s neighboring state of Idaho has three towns in the top 100 — Ketchum, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint. Washington has five towns that ranked as great American towns, including Chelan, Leavenworth, Port Townsend, Langley and La Connor.

Two towns in Wyoming made the list — Jackson and Cody, which sit at the entrance to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Montana towns making the grade include Red Lodge near the northern entrance to Yellowstone, along with Big Fork and Whitefish in the northwest corner of the state.

Colorado ranked third behind California and Oregon with 10 towns, including Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Breckenridge, Ouray, Telluride, Pagosa Springs and Durango — all located in the Rocky Mountains with ski resorts nearby.

In addition to elevating Baker City into the hierarchy of great American towns, Barbara Sidway, an owner of the Geiser Grand Hotel, said the ranking in the book is likely to put the town on the map as a tourist destination and a spot people will be checking out to buy homes.

“What you have here in Baker City is good and getting better,” said David Vokac. “What you’re doing with the little Powder River is excellent.”

The Vokacs said they like the vision the city is pursuing under the leadership of Jennifer Watkins, community development director, to expand the park and trail system along the Powder River, including plans to extend the parkway behind the Geiser Grand Hotel and other Main Street businesses with rear entrances has a great potential to give the downtown a park-like setting, which opens the door to some exciting retail opportunities for restaurants, art shops and other things as the parkway develops.

David Vokac said he likes the clever and creative murals around town and encouraged the addition of more murals with that high level of entertainment and artistic quality.

The book touts the Baker area’s excellent variety of restaurants, from Barley Brown’s Brewpub and the Geiser Grand Hotel to Mad Matilda’s, the Inland Cafe, Sumpter Junction and the Baker City Cafe — all with affordable prices compared to those found in most other great American towns featured in the book.

That’s a plus for people searching for travel bargains during these tough economic times, according to the Vokacs. 

They praised the town’s burgeoning wine and art scene found at the Geiser Grand Hotel, Bella, the Earth and Vine, the Carnegie Crossroads Art Center, the Elkhorn Gallery and others.

The weather profile for Baker City found in the book mirrors the weather profile for Bend, including fine to very good weather from May through September ideal for summer outdoor activities like hiking, camping, biking and wildlife viewing at the nearby Elkhorn Mountains, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Eagle Cap Wilderness.

There’s also plenty of fishing and boating and water recreation opportunities at area streams and reservoirs, at high mountain hikes such as Anthony Lakes, and at the Hells Canyon National Recreation area.

 The cool weather in the fall and again in the spring is ideal for hunting and fishing, and snowy winters in the Baker area are ideal for skiing and other winter adventures at Ski Anthony Lakes in the Elkhorn Mountains.

Jake Jacobs with the Baker City/County economic development team, said the Baker Heritage Museum has also added several new exhibits available for viewing year-round, including new exhibits on the history of the downtown buildings, as well as an exhibit featuring the ghost towns that once thrived during the gold rush, logging and cattle baron heyday of the area.

In their travels across the United States looking for great American cities, the Vokacs said no place compared to Baker City in terms of the affordability of lodging and housing.

If anyone is considering moving to the West Coast, the Vokacs said the existing housing in Baker City is the least expensive of any town in the three West Coast states listed in the book.

Other factors considered in ranking towns for inclusion among the “Great Towns of America” book included crime rates, income levels, education levels, recreational opportunities, cost of living, schools and higher education opportunities.


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