- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

CONDON, Ore. (AP) — If Gilliam County loses much more population, its wide open spaces and collection of three tiny towns — with no stoplights and 1.6 square miles for every person — could become a veritable nowhere.

Percentage-wise, it regularly tops the census list of Oregon counties that are losing population, a steady stream of 80 to 100 people every year.

And Gilliam County is far from the only place in the rural West that’s in danger of becoming a ghost county. In places such as Clearwater County, Idaho; Niobrara County, Wyo.; and Treasure County, Mont., the loss of 100 or so people regularly translates to population declines of 5 percent or 7 percent, year after year.

The drop is extended primarily by two factors: old-timers who die and young people who move away.

“Our teens graduate and they leave, and why not?” said Jan Eason, an associate pastor at a Nazarene church in Gilliam County. “What is there to come back for?”

In Niobrara County, Wyo., which has 2,237 persons left after a decline of 7.1 percent from 2000 to 2003, 18.7 percent of residents are older than 65, compared with 11.7 percent statewide.

And if the trends continue, in a decade or two, some such counties might be virtually empty.

“People either move to Billings, or if they get really old, they go into assisted living or they die,” Treasure County Commissioner Mack Cole said after a round of census figures last year showed that population there had dipped to 735 persons.

Some places, though, don’t want to give up, including once-prosperous Gilliam County, where farmers supplied wheat and grain to a battered world after World War II.

By the early 1990s, the county’s economic backbone was gone. County leaders were searching for any kind of moneymaker at all. All they really had to offer was plenty of vast, empty space.

Fortunately, that was just what urban areas such as Portland, 137 miles up Interstate 84, needed — a vast, empty space to put trash. Gilliam County became the site of an environmentally sound rural landfill, a distinction that now brings in $1 million a year to the county’s tax rolls and is a linchpin of what remains of the economy.

“At night, we sit in our porch swing and count the garbage trucks that go by,” said resident Darlene Smythe, 70.

Fueled by that success, the county placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times that touted the low cost of living, clean air and nonexistent traffic in Condon. The national press picked up the story, and the responses poured in. When the dust cleared, there were some new faces on the street, but they were mostly retirees, who didn’t come with new jobs in tow.

But perhaps the crown jewel in the county’s attempt to save itself from extinction is the Hotel Condon, the anchor of Condon’s downtown, which was once abandoned and empty, save for the occasional bat.

A motley group of investors — the local newspaper editor, farmers, ranchers, the district attorney, the owner of a local chemical company — restored it to its former glory, with period light fixtures and velvet drapes.

Even with the hotel, there are still those population numbers, slipping a bit more as each year goes by, and empty buildings on main streets.

“We are afraid we haven’t bottomed out yet,” said McLaren Stinchfield, editor of the county’s weekly newspaper, the Times-Journal. “We didn’t seriously think about what we could do to help ourselves for a very long time. It looks bad, but it could get worse.”

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