So Far, So Good in Ashland

The Oregon Town's "Best" Rating Hasn't Changed it Yet

Ashland, Oregon

Credit: Graham Lewis

Ashland, Ore.

Score: 75

Category:  Best-Rated Destinations

If you are a diligent reader of those best-of lists published by glossy magazines—Best Small Towns, Best Places to Retire—chances are you've heard of Ashland, Ore. Just a short drive from California's northern boundary—about 300 miles from Sacramento—Ashland started to garner acclaim in the late 1990s.

And now National Geographic Traveler has named Ashland one of its highest-ranked historic destinations, with only two American cities earning higher scores: Columbus, Ind., and Charleston, S.C. "One of America's most delightful small towns," raved one survey panelist about Ashland. "An example of how tourism can work in historic venues."

Ashland was settled in the early 1850s and thrived as a lumber mill town and railroad trade center. Today, the largest draw for the town, population just over 21,000, remains the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1935 and attended most famously by Vladimir Nabokov in the 1950s as he worked on Lolita. Ashland's other draw? Its charming architecture and wonderful array of boutique-type shops and restaurants, which attract both tourists and permanent residents. Both the downtown area and many neighborhoods, dotted with Queen Anne and Italianate architecture dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, have been remarkably well preserved and are made for walking.

"Visitors come for Shakespeare, but they come back for the charm of the community," says George Kramer, a preservation consultant who's currently running for mayor. "Folks who live here many years know all their neighbors. I think we are a small enough town that you still have that kind of closeness. But we also have big city amenities."

Holiday in downtown Ashland, Ore.

Credit: Orville's Photography

For all of Ashland's success in preserving its character in the midst of a tourist boom, challenges remain. Because of skyrocketing real estate prices, historic houses built on large lots have faced the threat of demolition, the land ripe for redevelopment for larger houses. And with skyrocketing property values, families and businesses in downtown—a National Register Historic District—have struggled to make ends meet. If fewer people live downtown and it becomes a haven for tourists only, what will that do to Ashland's character?

"It's an ongoing discussion," says John Fields, owner of Golden-Fields Construction, who renovated some of the houses vacated by mill workers when he first moved to town. "When do we start to lose our character and unique qualities? What makes Ashland such a special physical setting?" Fields says the planning process in Ashland needs to improve, with smart-growth principles helping guide the town's development. 

Kramer puts Ashland's boom in perspective. "We're still hanging at top of a parabolic arch. We haven't fallen or continued to rise. We're hovering here." The challenge? "Figuring out how to keep this place as wonderful as it is today."

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