SOUTH COAST — The others of his age group see him as the lead — the inspiration for a bunch more like him.
Brian Menten is owner of SharkBites Seafood Café and Waxer’s Surf & Skate next door in downtown Coos Bay. He remembers 10 years ago like it was yesterday, when he was waiting tables himself and using his tips to make payroll. He was nearly broke.
But he stuck with it. “I just went to work,” Menten said. “You gotta bleed.”
Finally, in 2011 business turned around. Now it’s thriving, meaning more time for Menten’s favorite pastime — surfing.
That’s why cohorts see him as the inspiration. And he’s all of 35 years old.
For a region that’s gone through the recession that hammered the South Coast the last couple of decades, sometimes an idea takes hold that the area’s young, talented adults are leaving; hitting the road for better opportunity anywhere but where they came from. Some call it brain drain and see talented members of the next generation abandoning ship, so to speak.
Look around, though. That notion is greatly exaggerated.
There are no reliable numbers to refer to that churn business owner statistics with age and demographic data. But start asking around and you’ll soon discover there are scores of young entrepreneurs and business professionals up and down the South Coast. Some left for a few years and came back; others never left for long. A few are newcomers who stayed because they saw potential.
They turned that potential into businesses — enterprises that provide others with jobs, generate additional economic activity and, eventually, re-create a community in their own image.
Menten is a Marshfield grad, and his parents Jon and Dora still live in Coos Bay. He was, in large part, inspiration to Annie Pollard and Carmen Matthews. Three years ago the couple looked at what Menten was accomplishing and were inspired to try their own business. They opened 7 Devils Brewery just a few blocks away.
Like Menten, Matthews (another Marshfield grad) and Pollard (who came from Salem) put a lot of physical labor into getting their operation started. But it wasn’t just them; friends and colleagues brought their artisan talents to the interior and exterior in exchange for liquid remuneration, creating a kind of co-op vibe to the enterprise.
And that vibe creates an attitude that Pollard says becomes contagious.
“I see people starting to take a lot more pride. Business owners are just proud to be here,” she said. “And it’s real; not pretentious.”
Pollard said other young professionals see wide open opportunity here. So, it made perfect sense for Las Vegas transplants John Beane and Daneal Doerr to befriend Pollard and Matthews and capture their own little piece of downtown commerce, So It Goes Coffeehouse. They opened last fall.
Beane said they were going for a bohemian atmosphere, and that’s evident with the shelf of used books and board games, the corner stage for soloists or small performing groups and the calendar of readings and discussion groups. And the clientele ranges from teenagers to senior citizens.
Again, hard work has its rewards, and Beane calls the Coos Bay area “the promised land!”
Angie Appel also continues to thrive with her Time Bomb consignment store. In business six years now, the psychedelic signage makes for a funky downtown Coos Bay storefront that draws skaters and other younger customers.
“Ya know, this town is more hip than people give it credit for,” said the one-time big-city, high-end chef. “I wanted to show the kids that any town you live in can be cool.”
Young businessfolk aren’t just in the towns. Zoe Bradbury runs Valley Flora Farm with mom Betsy and sister Abby in a verdant valley near Langlois.
She grew up on that farm. She left for a while to study agriculture, ecology and anthropology, and became engrossed in learning about the international politics of food: supply and demand and building sustainable local markets.
Even though she did research in Chile and worked in larger metropolitan areas, she calls her bucolic valley, “the center of the universe.”
Ever since the President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge first coined the term “brain drain,” the concept has been bantered about to bemoan the migration of youth from their regions of origin. From the smallest communities to nations, the notion is used to explain economic failings and as a reason for promoting economic diversity.
Indeed, the disparity in age demographics is frequently cited in profiles of the South Coast: we have a dearth of young people and an overabundance of senior citizens and retirees.
But while the population figures make sense, it’s important to note that the so-called younger demographic is in the age range of 18 to 29, or thereabouts. What statistical analyses don’t explore is how many of those — like Bradbury, Menten and Matthews — who may have left in their mid-20s and have returned to become successful professionals in their mid-30s to mid-40s, some of the most productive career years.
But new research is suggesting that is exactly what’s happening across the country.
University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist Ben Winchester began researching population trends nearly a decade ago and has seen a steady in-migration of 30- to 49-year-olds to rural areas of his state. These transplants bring with them educational achievements and established earning power, effectively creating a "brain gain" for these rural areas.
"So often, we've focused on what I call the deficit approach to rural research, or what's been lost," Winchester said in an interview earlier this summer. "What's been ignored is what's being gained. It's all in the data."
Similar research by Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, suggests the same phenomena is occurring in larger metropolitan areas as well — 30- to 40-year-olds re-inserting themselves into neighborhoods and communities that were assumed to have been abandoned by young professionals.
In all instances, the researchers say that what’s driving the trend is quality of life. In rural areas, young professionals find the pace of life they want and availability of opportunities for those willing to work.
"People move to an area for what you are, and what you'll become," Winchester said. "Not what you were."
That’s what kept Shannon Souza here after the job that brought her to the South Coast — an environmental engineer with Weyerhaeuser — disappeared.
Souza now uses her education and skills in her business, Sol Coast Consulting and Design, designing and installing residential and commercial solar systems. She could’ve become an entrepreneur anywhere, but she stayed in Coos Bay.
“Once I met folks, I wanted to stay,” said Souza, who was a founding parent for the Lighthouse Charter School. “It’s a low cost of living, there’s the outdoors and a strong social network.”
Quality of life also keeps Sam Ryzebol here, running Empire Bakery when his mother, Edna, retired earlier this year.
The 31-year-old transplant from the central California coast definitely keeps baker’s early morning hours, but says he can slip in at least one day a week for golf, and loves “the trees, the weather and area. And our customers!”
The idea of seeing and capitalizing on opportunity is also what young adults see that sometimes others do not. That’s what Greg Drobot saw when he partnered with Daniel Graham to build Face Rock Creamery in Bandon three years ago.
Betting on the lower South Coast’s rich tradition in the dairy industry, Face Rock’s double-digit growth has been astronomical. The creamery now distributes its cheese to some 3,000 retail outlets in 14 Western states while maintaining a retail front that’s become a visitor destination.
At 33, Drobot, who earned his economics degree at University of Washington and an MBA at San Diego, said he realizes some of older business people may see his generation as less than industrious. They’d be wrong.
“There’s no coasting, that’s for sure,” Drobot said one busy, sunny afternoon in the store on U.S. Highway 101. “Some people don’t realize how much work it takes.”
And Drobot says he had a great mentor and example of the hard-working, young entrepreneur in Lori Osborne. Together with her husband, Barry, they opened the Beverage Barn in Bandon in the spring of 2015, an emporium among liquor outlets in Oregon.
The pair could’ve stayed in the cozy hole-in-the-wall liquor store that they’d taken over from Barry’s mother in 1994. But they said they decided they could build more.
“Go big or go home,” Lori Osborne said. “We wanted to get ahead of the curve.”
Again, hard work proves to be the way to build a business. Inside the sprawling store, display shelves were built by Barry by hand. They provided 10 more jobs to the economy. And their merchandise selection includes an entire aisle devoted to sprits produced in Oregon.
And Lori Osborne expanded this summer, taking a corner of the Bandon’s weekend farmers’ market with a small display featuring all Oregon products. It’s an extension of another business the couple will open in the old liquor store location called The Shed, a place to host small, private events.
One other thing characterizes these young people and their business ventures — their attitude. They all know, do business with and otherwise support each other. And their vision of the future is hopeful.
“I sense a lot of pride all around,” said Annie Pollard. “At least with the people I know and do business with. And pride is pretty contagious, y’know?”