Early this year, piles of deep snow drifted into Burns, Oregon, and so did the outsiders and their money. Gas stations, cafes and hotels are seeing packed crowds in normally sleepy winter.
For businesses, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation is a boom. After Christmas in Burns, some local businesses just shutter for months until spring. Others, like the America’s Best Value Inn usually lay off most of their staff.
Maid Liz Houer said she usually doesn’t have enough work this time of year to keep on.
“I haven’t had a day off since New Years Day, and normally I have four days off,” she said. “It’s good for me right now, because usually I’m on unemployment about this time.”
'It’s like having summer all winter long'
Plunked right off U.S. 20, the hotel’s manager Vickie Allen said she’s never seen a winter like this. Thirty-eight rooms nearly full up every night.
“Sometimes we might only have one person in the house in the winter months -- so this is a godsend. It’s like having summer all winter long,” Allen said with a laugh.
But she admitted it’s sometimes a strange mix at the continental breakfast bar each morning. Law enforcement and occupiers wrangling over the coffee urn and Danish.
“The police don’t bother anybody; the militia don’t bother anybody,” Allen said. “We only get maybe two or three militia in here a week. They come in to clean up and go back out.”
Everyone has been well behaved, she said.
“They just don’t talk over the differences between ‘em,” Allen said.
Of the half-dozen hotels I visited in Burns, most are selling triple or double the rooms they usually would this time of year.
Overtime and non-stop business
At Bella Java & Bistro A bit northeast in town, on North Broadway, regulars, like a table-full of ball-cap-wearing Burns veterans, swamped in for coffee. Strangers too – like a posse of Oregonian writers.
Manager Tammy DeLange is working overtime in the back. Today, she was making lunchtime beef wraps for the 10 or so law enforcement officers protecting the town’s elementary school.
“I wish it were different circumstances, but we do love it,” DeLange said. “It’s helping the businesses as far as restaurants and stuff.”
She said she’s had occupiers in too -- they’ve been polite. But the sheer volume of business hasn’t let up.
“Oh my gosh. It starts at 7:30 and coffees, breakfast, trying to do prep,” DeLange said. “Like I said we’re catering right now, lunches are overwhelming and then they’re still here at 3 p.m.”
The tough business of staying neutral
Still, many business owners say they are purposefully laying low.
At a remote café and convenience store outside of Burns, the manager there said she’s had threatening emails from some supporting the occupiers. And then old-time customers who come to bird-watch at Malheur called to chew her out. She was afraid to give me her name.
She said staying neutral is tough business these days.
One quiet surprise in Burns business news: traffic at the B&B Sporting Goods store has been just a tick over average. B&B owner Denny Thomas sells about any make of gun, ammo or knife one could want in Harney County. Or he’ll order it in.
On average, he sells about four guns a day. Last week he said that skipped up to five a day. But he said no occupiers are coming in for bulk buys.
“We still have predominantly local shoppers,” Thomas said. “We get a few people coming in ‘cause they might need a pair of gloves, but other than that it’s been pretty normal.”
The hot seller this week: Shotgun shells to ranchers. There’s a rabbit-population boom this winter and people are blasting them to keep the hungry bunnies off their haystacks.