Council: Bring the bears back to Brookings

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer October 02, 2012 09:53 pm

Bring back the bears!

That’s what the Brookings City Council would like to see as a way to lure business and tourism to the area, citing the bears’ success when they were on display three years ago.

The bears, life-sized statues upon which artists have painted themed murals, grace the streets of Grants Pass, the home base for Evergreen Federal Bank, which owns the popular art.

Twenty-five of them migrated to Brookings for three months at the end of 2009 and removed – to many residents’ dismay – early in 2010. Signs posted along Chetco Avenue read, ““There must be a bear clause that says we can stay,” “We bearly got to know you,” and “Brookings will be bruined without us.”

“When I heard about it, I thought, ‘This is so stupid,’” admitted City Councilor Kelly McClain at a city work session Monday afternoon. “But after watching the reactions some of the tourists were having. … I was blown away. I got attached to the silly things. When they went away, I really did miss them. It changed the town.”

He’s now become the bears’ biggest supporter – going so far as to suggest the city funnel all its marketing money into borrowing the bear molds from Evergreen Bank and creating its own sleuth of bears, as a group of bears is called.

“Our focus should be the beautification of our town,” he said. “We should take any money directed to marketing and redirect it to the beautification of our town; we’ll get the same effect. I think that’s the right way to build business.”

He has asked officials at Evergreen Bank if they would consider allowing the bears to remigrate to Brookings, but to no avail. He suggested the idea might hold more sway if Mayor Ron Hedenskog and City Manager Gary Milliman were to pose the question instead.

“I can’t imagine they wouldn’t want to play ball,” McClain said of loaning Brookings the molds and getting recognition in exchange. “For $30,000, we could have a town full of bears in three years.”

The city this spring decided to discontinue its marketing efforts with the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce, freeing up about $36,000 a year in revenue garnered from short-term lodging taxes for marketing.

Molds to create such structures can be prohibitively expensive, McClain noted, but if the city could borrow Evergreen Bank’s molds and mount a plaque on each bear crediting the institution, it would cost the city far less to merely cast the statues.

The discussion has reappeared on council meeting agendas recently as councilors try to figure out a way to bolster tourism – and subsequently, business – in Brookings.

Indeed, former Evergreen Bank branch manager John White saw that potential three years ago – and it paid off for businesses.

White said his company believes small businesses are the backbone of a community, and the excitement created by the bears contributes to that character and builds customer loyalty.

The bears got their start in Grants Pass after an Evergreen Bank employee saw statues of cows throughout Chicago; the Oregon bank then made bears and held BearFest celebrations and auctions, raising money for non-profit agencies.

Brookings City Council members want to create some kind of an artistic draw like many towns throughout the state do to lure tourists. At one point after the bears departed, ideas included creating statues of whales, seals, salmon – even newts. 

“I want to bring back the bears, the cows, the mooses or whatever else,” said Mayor Ron Hedenskog.

Other suggested art could be as simple as feather-flags, chainsaw-crafted animals, hanging flower baskets – or even temporary “street art” in the form of chalk drawings. Some cities feature unofficial art – much appearing overnight – including knitted yarn wrapping tree trunks and construction fences, moss “painted” on walls that grows into words like “grow” or “life,” or even something as eye-catching as yo-yos hanging from the upraised paws of lion statues.

In many cases, the art becomes synonymous with the city in which it is displayed.

More than 60 businesses participated in Brookings’ BearFest celebration in 2009 and raised $2,000 for the Brookings-Harbor Community Helpers Inc., Food Share.

The last time the city hosted the bears, the Oregon Department of Transportation required it to make a plan. But the bears don’t have to be situated on ODOT rights-of-way.

“If this works for four or six months, it can work forever,” McClain said. “It could be smart business for them (Evergreen), and a cost-effective way to beautify the town.”