Burning Man is an infamous event that occurs every year in late August in northern Nevada, a 3.5-hour drive from Klamath Falls. Calling it an event is only partially accurate. Considering the infrastructure, this is a city that exists for two weeks. Organizers call it Black Rock City.
Residency of Black Rock City has increased every year since its inception in the early 90s. In 1998 the population was 23,000, roughly the size of Klamath Falls. In 2014 it bulged to 68,000. Roughly one-quarter of the traffic driving to Burning Man passes through Klamath Falls, a fact which some gas stations, hotels, and stores are keenly aware of. Klamath as a whole has yet to cater directly to this accidental tourism, and that is a shame.
Truly curious is that while Klamath can’t maintain consistent commercial air service, Black Rock City is served by several air carriers. Unlike Klamath, they receive no subsidies for their airport, no government marketing funds, and have never solicited commercial air service. They actually discourage it. Klamath continues to clamor for carrier solutions to no avail. More private aircraft visit during the two weeks of Burning Man than an entire year at the Klamath airport. The contrast between these two remote areas is a testament to the ineptitude of Klamath’s myopically deluded community of managers.
In pointing out the obvious, we tend to gift cures to those whom we loathe. Is the the sport of illustrating local incompetence is worth the price of the effort? These people consume our breadcrumbs, then take credit for out-of-the-box thinking. They get paid for it, we do not. And that is the crux of what makes Black Rock City such a huge success and Klamath an enormous failure. Klamath fails to reward creative types that don’t fit the limited conservative profile. So we aren’t going to name the airlines serving Black Rock just to add credibility to our point. Know that they are very easy to identify and contacting those airlines directly won’t achieve air service without subsidization.
Klamath Falls needs to be far more interesting and creative in much different ways (not the car show, fair, quilting, bird watching, gun show activities we’ve been engaged in like most rural communities). The only way we can envision this happening is if the old guard that insists on occupying positions of authority in defense of the status quo suddenly steps down and allows a generation with a different mindset to take over. This isn’t just the people who keep getting re-elected: we’re talking about entire administrations.
Klamath hosts a significant technical university. It strains the mind to ponder how a community filled with upper echelon college students can end up with such a grossly lame social environment. You just don’t see this level of malaise in other college towns. While the curriculum may be appealing, those socially-adept souls that find themselves attending university in Klamath feel the experience is more like doing time in a medieval monastery.
In Palo Alto, where Stanford University is located, there has always been substantial interplay between creative service trades, investors, artists, business development, and university students. Many students utilize the community social network they became part of to catapult startups like Apple Computer and Google. And why wouldn’t they? They enjoyed the community, the area, and merged with an open-minded governance keen on perpetuating the creative environment that retains the talent that changes the world. How does Klamath fail in this so completely? Most of our students leave because there is not enough here for them. They move to creative communities.
In this age, places that reward and integrate the creativity of outliers tend to be economically successful. Ashland, Bend and Hood River are shining examples of towns that fully embraced youthful creativity. In any of these communities, musicians and artists feel immediately welcomed. As they become part of the inviting atmosphere, they build vibrancy. Not only are their ideas incorporated, their creative pursuits are monetized into the business fabric. This is a major reason why property values in those three communities have escalated while Klamath’s has continued to decline. When faced with choices that some would call opportunities, we chose boring.
There are many best practices that Klamath could have adopted from the creative communities leading Oregon, so why hasn’t Klamath done so? While it may be possible to ask a musician playing a saxaphone at 10pm on a Bend street corner what attracted him, the nuances behind cultivating a creative communities are not so plain and seem far beyond the comprehension of Klamath planners. Understanding what works requires an extreme example of an economy built on creativity. That’s where Burning Man comes in.
With awareness that the general population considers Burning Man an enigmatic joke, we catered to that feeling by hooking the reader by placing “hippie” in the title. This archetype has rolled eyes since the 60s. Such categorization allows Burning Man to be readily dismissed as something that offers no lessons for communities like Klamath. This is unfortunate because there are many ways to adapt their practices to cure the stale funk that permeates Klamath’s rural society.
To dispel the negative mythology, consider the people who call themselves Burners. Burning Man consistently attracts annual residency from commercial superstars. These include:
- Mark Zuckerberg, the 30-year-old CEO and founder of Facebook. His net worth is estimated at $30 billion. Also from Facebook was Dustin Moskovitz, 30, net worth $6.8 billion.
- Sergey Brin, age 41 with a networth of $31 billion and Larry Page, also 41 with a net worth of $31.2 billion are co-founders of Google also go to Burning Man (they also attended Stanford in Palo Alto).
- Elon Musk, 43, net worth of $8.4 billion, CEO of Telsa Motors, co-founder of Paypal and SpaceX.
- Jeff Bezos, 50, Founder and CEO of Amazon, net worth $32 billion.
These are the most famous captains of industry that attend. A substantial portion of the rest of the Black Rock City population are upper and mid level managers of major companies, entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers.
On the creative side are numerous movie stars, musicians, Djs, and models. Shawn Combs aka P Diddy, 45, net worth $700 million, rapper, actor, record producer men’s fashion designer. Also known to attend are Paris Hilton, Anne Hathaway, Susan Sarandon, General Wesley Clark, Bjork, Daft Punk…the list goes on.
These people are drawn to join a city that exists for two weeks in a Nevada location that is far more rural and isolated than Klamath.
If Zuckerberg alone enjoyed visiting Klamath, there would be no problem anchoring an airline. This could have been a reality, as many others on Burning Man’s A-list if Klamath had not fumbled its data center opportunity (see prior article: Locals Thwart $360 Million Job Creating Project).
The closest permanent town to Black Rock City is Gerlach, NV. That town didn’t ask for Burning Man to move in, but they did eventually embrace it, and it’s a good thing. The only anchor for Gerlach and another small town, Empire, was US Gypsum (USG) that employed 300 people. USG announced in 2010 that it would end its gypsum mine and wallboard manufacturing operations. Without Burning Man and its permanent presence in Gerlach to warehouse, manage, and plan the annual infrastructure deployment, Gerlach may well have become a ghost town. Gerlach has received a steady stream of donations and patronage from the Burning Man presence.
How does all this link back to Klamath?
- We learn the lesson that anchoring amenities such as air service doesn’t require government assistance if a community can figure out how to be creative, open and interesting.
- Klamath hinges the majority of its tourism marketing on the presence of Crater Lake. The problem is, Crater Lake does nothing to sustain interest or improve the social fabric necessary for development and retention. Jackson County and Medford were way ahead of Klamath in becoming the portal to Crater Lake. Their advantage is they have other creative anchors like Ashland and Jackson Hot Springs that build resilience. Visitors are not impressed by the visitor experience in Klamath over Medford in any way. There’s less to do, fewer shops, and a void of visible creativity. If Crater Lake works as an anchor, why hasn’t it been attracting the A-list that frequents Burning Man?
- Creatives require unsanctioned gathering places. Klamath offers none. The Ross Ragland and the Fairgrounds are not conducive to spontaneous, organic gatherings.
- The use of natural amenities in creative ways draws creatives. Many Burners enjoy visiting area hot springs during their trek. With all its geothermal resources, Klamath only offers an atypical swimming pool that is not an adult attractor in any sense. Take the Breitenbush Hotspring example between Bend and Salem, for example. They have built a cultural creative persona around geothermal soaking and camping. The Wellsprings between Ashland and Medford has been reinvented as a creative village for wellness with regular concerts and free-association binges.
- Less obvious and difficult to pin down are the myriad of city and county regulations and procedures that kill creativity. The thing creatives dislike more than all else is nonsensical bureaucracy that feels like prejudice in practice. That is the greatest barrier locals need to devote the most effort to overcome.
Due to anchor points of a physical nature (OIT, National Guard, Hospital, County Seat), Klamath isn’t going to die, but it will continue to exist in a zombie-like state of limbo, gnawing on the brains of transients, not unlike Lakeview in the mid-90s. There you had a community devastated by the reduction of timber harvesting and value-added manufacturing. They spun in circles for many years, taking large government subsidies, but turning away the few business development opportunities that visited them. The state located a prison in Lakeview that the locals were vehemently opposed to. They are used to it now and in spite of themselves have benefited from peripheral investments such as a tactical training facility. These unwanted investments brought enough employment to sustain or rebuild a few dying eateries and stores.
That’s what happens to communities in limbo. Those that fail to attract favorable investments end up being the dumping ground for projects no one else in the state wants. At Klamath’s current state, there’s no reason to expect a different outcome. Klamath receives more noisy fighter jets, polluting power generation projects, or what’s next…another prison?
The best thing Klamath could do is the easiest. Being in a location where 25% of the Burning Man traffic passes, there are many projects Klamath could invoke that would not only capitalize on this human migration, but use it to attract and retain creatives in the long-term.
It simply doesn’t work to write-off that crowd of Burners as penniless vagabonds, certainly not when you consider the multi-billion net worth of the A-list. Tally the net worth of the rest of the lists down the alphabet and there is a substantial pool of capital being spent somewhere, usually not in Klamath. This is something the Chamber of Commerce should be addressing, but they are not. Or the Tourism Department, who just can’t comprehend that Burners are typically more affluent than the dwindling supply of common tourists in spite of their strange appearances and hippie personas as they stampede through.
Still don’t get it? OK, here’s the great idea we won’t see any credit for…
Create and publicize a large stopover campground for Burners along with a vendor fair. Burners prefer to buy their supplies and bling along the way because it makes their long drive more comfortable if their vehicles are not so crowded in the beginning. (Some Burners on the drive are traveling all the way from Vancouver, BC and Seattle). If they know there are places to scrounge supplies and junk for re-purposing, they will make a point of spending more time and money in Klamath. There is surplus unused acreage south of Klamath Falls and extra funding in the Tourism budget to pay for staging this a token to win Burner affection. The community college has its own acreage to offer, but it would probably be too great a stretch for them to wrap their minds about creative use of their unused property. We certainly wouldn’t want to unleash creativity on a college campus around these parts.
One final barrier: Local Government
The County and the City have in the past shut down numerous locals that wanted to host flea markets. Creatives love flea markets and the absence of a junk marketplace continues to harm Klamath’s bootstrappers. The County also seems to frown on collections of RVs camping on any land except the one campground in the City of Klamath Falls (KOA…small and difficult to maneuver into) or the fairgrounds (for rare special events only). These archaic policies need to be eliminated in a very open manner if Klamath chooses to embrace, rather than ignore the tremendous financial resources represented by the annual Burner migration.
Follow these topics: Case StudiesOlder postNewer post