What is “South County”? An Overview of Rural Southern Deschutes County

What is “South County”? An Overview of Rural Southern Deschutes County

by Damon Runberg

November 14, 2016

When I first moved to Central Oregon, I heard a colleague reference "South County." Although I had lived in Oregon for nearly my entire life, I was fairly sure there were no counties in Oregon by the name "South." I came to realize that this common nickname refers to the southern portion of Deschutes County stretching from Sunriver in the north down to La Pine to the south; from Paulina Peak in the east to Wickiup and Crane Prairie to the west. The area is also warmly referred to as "Newberry Country." The economic activity and large population centers in Bend and Redmond often overshadow "South County" trends. What does the economy and population look like in the southern portion of Deschutes County?

La Pine is the only incorporated city in the southern portion of the county; however, there are several communities with sizable populations including Sunriver, Three Rivers, and 1,000 Trails. Many presume that the region is sparsely populated since the population of La Pine is only around 1,700 residents. However, the neighborhoods and communities in South County account for more than 10 percent of Deschutes County's total population. Around 17,000 residents live in the two zip codes that together define the region (97739 - La Pine Area and 97707 - Sunriver Area).

Estimates from the Census Bureau allow us to dig a bit deeper into South County's population. These residents tend to be older than the average county resident. More than 26 percent of South County's population is 65 years or older compared with just over 16 percent at the county level. Household incomes are lower, particularly in the La Pine area, where the median household income is $15,000 less than the county. However, incomes in the Sunriver area are comparable to the countywide median. We also find that poverty rates are higher in the southern portion of the county with nearly 18 percent of the population falling under the poverty line compared with around 15 percent for Deschutes County. Lower incomes and a slightly higher poverty rate are not too surprising considering the southern portion of the county offers some of the most affordable housing in Central Oregon with the exception of the Sunriver area.
Levels of unemployment are fairly high in South County. The annual average unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in 2015, significantly higher than the 6 percent across all of Deschutes County. Once again, we find a distinct difference between the Sunriver and La Pine portions of South County. The area around Sunriver had considerably lower levels of unemployment (5.8%) than the areas around La Pine (8.4%).

In 2015, there were around 3,500 nonfarm jobs in South County, which represented around 5 percent of all nonfarm jobs in the county, a much smaller share than their 10 percent of the population. Why the discrepancy? Many of these residents commute to other parts of Deschutes or Klamath counties to find work. In the southern most portion of Deschutes County, average commute times are nearly 30 minutes, which is around a 56 percent longer commute time than the average county resident. Another piece of data that points to significant commuting in the region is the labor force statistics. South County accounted for nearly 9 percent of the countywide labor force, but only 5 percent of the nonfarm jobs. This means that a large share of the labor force in South County is either commuting to work outside the area or they are working in agriculture.

South County enjoyed some impressive job growth over the past 5 years despite the fact that many residents commute to find work in other parts of Deschutes County. The region added nearly 400 new jobs since 2010, growth of 13 percent. The rate of growth was quite a bit slower than the county during that period (+22%) with much of the countywide job growth concentrated in Bend and Redmond. Despite the slower pace of job growth, adding 13 percent to the local job base over the past 5 years is impressive when compared with the average rural community.

Industry employment in South County is largely dominated by accommodation and food services, accounting for 1,170 jobs. These are jobs in hotels and restaurants, which are highly concentrated in the Sunriver area with its destination resorts. There is a big drop off after accommodation and food services with no other industry accounting for more than 230 jobs (real estate, rental, and leasing). Other large employment sectors include retail (210); health care and social assistance (200); manufacturing (170); and arts, entertainment, and recreation (80).

Whether you call it South County, Newberry Country, or the La Pine area, the southern portion of Deschutes County is seeing some exciting changes. The region is growing thanks to its quality of life and a slower pace of life. The next time you drive down to La Pine or Sunriver, you will now know what the locals are talking about when they refer to "South County."