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And in the Darkness Bind Them

Inside Eugene's cult of tech
Illustration by Sarah Decker
Illustration by Sarah Decker

Eugene tech torchbearer Cale Bruckner had Middle Earth in mind four years ago when he dreamed up the term “Silicon Shire,” because of course he did. And he was correct if he thought it would strike the precise subliminal chords to produce charming pastoral visions of prosperity, while shoving Silicon Valley pitfalls out of the mental picture.

Bruckner himself got his start at Eugene’s Palo Alto Software before graduating from the University of Oregon in ’96. He launched the Silicon Shire online tech directory in 2012 to promote local tech companies and capture graduating talent from UO, Oregon State University and Lane Community College and keep it here.

At the time, California-based businesses were snatching the brightest tech-bulbs out of the lower Willamette Valley before the ink on their diplomas dried, Bruckner says. He wanted local up-and-comers to see what they were missing in and around Eugene before making up their minds.

And it appears to be working. In recent years, Eugene and Springfield’s tech industry has shot forward by leaps and bounds. Success is measured by the hundreds of tech firms that have hatched here, and the thousands they employ.

Eugene’s tech scene is doing so well the state just upped its 10-year regional growth forecast to 28 percent, up from 19 percent. 

Small, cheap, quiet and closely surrounded by nature: Bruckner was drawn to Eugene’s Shire-like charm, and he hoped others would be, too. But how long can Eugene bask in the tech limelight before big city problems come knocking?

A couple college kids at a late-summer tech crawl organized by the Technology Association of Oregon in downtown Eugene make faces of disgust when asked if they’d consider relocating to Palo Alto. Speaking casually as hundreds filter into Kesey Square for the tech-themed mixer, they say they mean to stay here after graduating. The boys admit they stand to make a lot more money in the Bay Area, but what a nightmare: The pressure there is racking, the get-rich-quick culture is a bugbear and the cost of Silicon Valley living is outrageous.

Questions about their summer internship assignment at a major tech outfit based in Springfield lead to torrents of proactive-sounding language that ultimately may or may not have something to do with virus protection. 

Tech is a many splendored thing, so varied in form and function that it’s hard to get a handle on it. Even industry folks struggle to define the high-tech sector without using the word “tech” somewhere in the definition.

It doesn’t help that even the experts at the Oregon Employment Department (OED) can’t say for sure what tech is or what it looks like. “The high-tech industry does not have one standard definition or official government code,” says a 2016 report. “Instead, it is a mix of service and manufacturing businesses from a variety of industries. High tech means different things to different people and organizations.”

All anyone seems to know for sure is that tech is huge and growing fast.

As if to add insult, the minds naming today’s tech companies seem to be aiming for the sweet spot that hovers somewhere between meaningless gibberish and jumbled-up inspirational slogans pulled from a hat. The results are far-flung oddball constructions like Smarsh, FlishHorse, Cognitopia and FertiLab Thinkubator.

Hearing tech’s opaque jargon for the first time feels like being sucked against your will into the middle of a longstanding game of psycho-intellectual razzle-dazzle, where the object isn’t to conceal the truth, per se — only make it difficult to locate.

Though key specifics are tricky to nail down, Eugene’s tech leaders are hardwired to think in thrillingly contagious boomtown terms like innovation, progress, opportunity and tomorrow. Last but certainly not least, in a region known for its dying timber economy, is all the talk of open, high-paying jobs. Many of the companies listed at siliconshire.org are currently hiring. The OED says the state average salary for tech workers is around $70,000.

Technology Association of Oregon director Matt Sayre is quick to point out that two of Smarsh’s recent hires are a former coffee shop worker and a grandma, heading off at the pass any preconceived notion that tech jobs are only for Millennial bros.

When Sayre talks about local tech firms he could mean anything from humble design studio Artsdigital.co, which employs only about five people at a time, to billion-dollar newcomers like Avago/Broadcom.

“The high-tech industry is a crucial and dynamic piece of Oregon’s economy,” writes OED workforce analyst Emily Starbuck, in the aforementioned report. “In March 2016, private-sector employment was over 90,700 and contributed more than $9 billion in covered payroll to the state’s workers.”

The promise of new jobs and good wages works like catnip on many Willamette Valley denizens and their elected and appointed leaders, causing them to do strange and reckless things. Most recently, Eugene City Council and the Lane County Commissioners approved a two-year, $7-million property tax exemption for international tech behemoth Avago/Broadcom, which makes chips that go inside your iPhone, and probably a lot of other stuff.

Retired state Business Development Department officer Robert Warren expressed chagrin over the tax break in an op-ed published weeks ago in this paper. Tax breaks “can be a powerful incentive to help a company decide to locate in a specific community,” Warren writes. “But when negotiating with a company like Broadcom, with 8,400 employees and revenues over $4 billion last year, our team appears to have been in way over their heads. They gave away $7 million to close a deal that was already done.”

Eugene city leaders’ business savvy explains why some are less than stoked to see their once-crummy city climb internet top-10 lists of quaint tech meccas. Other good reasons for trepidation might be explained in the deeper layers of Bruckner’s neat Shire metaphor.

Parochial, laid back and out-of-the-way; plentitudes of greenery and institutional gardening knowledge; decent brunch options and lots of beer: Many Eugeneans dig Eugene for the exact same reasons hobbits prefer the Shire.

Getting noticed, however, doesn’t go well for the fictional Shire or its native inhabitants. Those who’ve read Tolkien’s three-part epic know a band of thieves invade the pleasantly quiet hobbit village. Figuratively speaking, the same is true of tech cities.

Tech cities the world over have a lot of the same social diseases. And the signs are clear as day because we’ve seen their symptoms before, but never this close.

From hundreds of miles away, Oregonians looked on with superior Church Lady judgment as overnight billionaire tech brats took San Francisco by storm and continued south before nestling into the warm crotch of the SF Bay. We began to sweat a little after grunge city Seattle morphed into something glassy and sleek. Hearing what friends pay for even shitty rentals in Portland nowadays sends chills up the spine.

For the down-and-outs who live on the edges of those bellwether burgs, tech was the opening through which crawled a mostly-straight-white plague of skyrocketing rent payments, clogged roadways and brutal competition for what’s left over.

Sayre likes to say “a rising tide raises all boats,” and leave it at that; the whole region benefits from a prosperous tech sector, he argues.

Sayre is correct to point out that every new tech job fans employment in other sectors. 

UC Berkeley Economics professor Enrico Moretti says tech’s multiplier effect is greater than that of any other industry, calling it “almost magical.” In his 2012 book The New Geography of Jobs, he says that “for each new high-tech job in a city, five additional jobs are ultimately created outside of the high-tech sector in that city, both in skilled occupations (lawyers, teachers, nurses) and in unskilled ones (waiters, hairdressers, carpenters).”

Still, that’s cold comfort to those who’ve been priced-out of their homes and chased from their neighborhoods by indifferent market forces.

In 2011, then-San Francisco mayor Ed Lee started giving out tax breaks — calling them “community benefit agreements” — to tech companies such as Twitter, Yammer and Spotify in order address high unemployment numbers and lure businesses to the city’s struggling Tenderloin neighborhood. Google, Apple, Facebook and many others have opened offices in the city.

In the last five years, SF has added roughly 60,000 people and home prices have almost doubled. A couple years ago Buzzfeed published a list of nine private islands that cost less than an apartment in the city.

Things have gotten so out of control that even tech workers find themselves looking for creative housing solutions. The Washington Post ran a story this year about a freelance illustrator who moved to SF and now pays $400 a month to live in a crate in his friend’s living room.

Bruckner says tech shoulders an undue share of the blame for social problems like gentrification, which same-ifies everyplace by reaming the color and flavor out of cultural centers in order to make more elbow room for well-to-do Apatow-Americans.

“It’s a matter of optics,” he adds. “Tech is just more visible than other things going on at the same time.”

The president of web development company Concentric Sky recommends looking at other mid-sized tech cities like Boulder, Colorado, and Bend to get a clearer picture of where Eugene’s headed. But those cities, too, are experiencing excruciating tech-induced growing pains that make life particularly difficult for those already hanging from the bottom rung. 

Poor and middle-class families are leaving Boulder because rents and home prices have gone through the roof — Boulder surpassed Aspen and Denver to become the most expensive housing market in Colorado; a Boulder County business journal reported this summer that the average home price in the area is more than $1 million — and Bend is in the process of expanding its urban growth boundary to deal with a serious housing shortage.

The words Silicon Shire suggest Eugene and Springfield can have it both ways, but the record speaks for itself. No city has yet solved the perhaps impossible equation that balances progress and growth with fairness and humanity.

It’s not tech’s fault, though; business flows mindlessly to where opportunity presents itself.

Our last prophylactic is only as thick as the integrity and spirit of our city councilors and county commission, which is scary given their pro-business votes. A quick lay of the land suggests that the battle for Eugene’s soul is over but for the shouting.

When he coined the term Silicon Shire to help raise Eugene’s tech profile, Bruckner may have inadvertently doomed the city he loves. At the time this article goes to press, the relentless all-searching eye of Sauron circles our neck of the woods in ever-tightening patterns.