Panda Express opens

Panda Express, which opened in December 2019, is one of Hermiston’s newer restaurants. The building replaced an Indian restaurant that went out of business.

In all the time I’ve worked as a journalist covering Hermiston, I think 2020 is the first year I haven’t had a single person call to tell me they had heard from a very credible source that Costco or Winco was coming to town.

Every time I’ve reached out to those stores, they’ve let me know the rumor was wishful thinking on residents’ part.

I understand the impulse. When I moved here in 2013, it definitely felt like Hermiston’s retail and restaurant offerings had not kept up with its rapid population growth. A study commissioned by the chamber of commerce at the time confirmed that Hermiston was “underserved” by those industries.

The good news is the greater Hermiston area’s food scene has greatly diversified since. We’ve added sushi restaurants, a salad shop, a bistro, a Vietnamese restaurant, Mexican-Japanese fusion, a BBQ food truck and other options that used to require a trip to the Tri-Cities in Washington. I suspect people who say there are no good restaurants here may not have tried all the area has to offer.

I definitely wouldn’t say no to more options, however. And retail options have grown less quickly than restaurants, with the notable exception of a new Ranch & Home.

So what can we do about it?

I often hear people say, “The city needs to bring in ... ” but city governments have limited control over what businesses set up shop in town. They can set rules about what types of uses are allowed in certain zones. They can offer financial incentives, such as tax breaks or grants. They can try to make property in town more attractive. But at the end of the day, the determining factor is whether a business looks at a town and says, “We could make some good money here.”

Large chains people often wish for have that determination down to a science. Sites for new stores must meet criteria that include not only a certain number of people living within a 15-minute drive but also factors, such as the median income and number of cars passing by the lot per day. They also look at similar stores or restaurants in the area and the “leakage” of residents who are spending their money in other towns.

Residents don’t have much control over their town’s population, other than completing the census so that number is not artificially low. But the number one thing all of us can do to encourage new retail and restaurants in our community is to shop local.

Believe me, corporations know if you don’t shop local. Those free apps you have downloaded on your phone that let you play games or check the weather forecast? They’re often free because the real money is in tracking your every move and selling that information. Retail analytics firms also use your online activity and debit card use to provide “customer behavior” data to companies considering where to expand.

If you want more restaurants and shopping options in Hermiston (or Umatilla or whatever town you live in), eat here more often. Shop here. Why would Olive Garden go through the expense of building in Hermiston when they’re already getting your money at their Tri-Cities location? Why would Winco build here when there’s a chance everyone will just keep driving up to Costco for their groceries instead? Why would a Hermiston resident take the risk to open up a new business in town when they’ve seen so many other businesses die from lack of support?

I know it’s hard — options can be limited here for certain items, and as good as our local restaurants are sometimes I can’t resist those Texas Roadhouse rolls.

But as a member of a struggling local business I also understand the other side — wishful thinking is not enough to sustain a business. When I started covering Hermiston we had six reporters and a full-time editor in Hermiston. Now you get just me, because Facebook likes do not pay the bills.

The best way to increase the number and quality of local businesses is to support the ones we already have.

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