Bend’s Old Mill District architect, Bill Smith, dies at 81

From saving the three smokestacks that rise above the banks of the Deschutes River to pulling Bend’s economy out of the ashes of a recession, the legacy of Bill Smith is everywhere.

Smith, the developer of the Old Mill District, was among the early pioneers of present day Bend. Smith died in his sleep on Friday. He was 81.

“Bill’s mark is everywhere,” said Kelly Cannon-Miller, Deschutes Historical Museum executive director. “In the history of the city, there’s only a handful of people that had an impact similar to the vision he had on our economy and recovery from the declining lumber industry.”

Smith first came to Bend in the summer of 1968 as part of an internship program and would later take a job at Brooks-Scanlon in 1970 as a planning director.

After the Brooks-Scanlon sawmill permanently closed in 1994, Smith and six private investors bought the mill property and developed it into the Old Mill District. He also preserved and moved the nearby train depot and the scale house building, preserving a slice of the city’s history, Cannon-Miller said.

In fact, were it not for Smith, The Bulletin newspaper might have ceased publication.

Smith was one of the early investors to help the East Oregonian Publishing Co. in 2019 when it purchased the newspaper founded in 1903 and later owned and operated by the family of Robert Chandler.

“Bill plays a big role in the retelling of Bend’s history,” Cannon-Miller said. “He had the courage to take on his vision. He had a hand in shaping the modern Bend.”

Smith was born in Tucson, Arizona on Aug. 10, 1941 and grew up in Denver. He spent some time in Washington when his father, an engineer, worked in Hanford.

He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and served in the U.S. Navy from 1964-68 in the Navy Supply Corps.

He obtained a master’s degree in business administration in 1970 from Stanford University.

It was the summer between his first and second year in the master’s program that Smith was selected from a pool of applicants to intern with the Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Co., said Mike Hollern, chairman of the Brooks Resources board of directors.

When Hollern met Smith, he said he saw vision and strength in Smith. That was more than half a century ago.

Smith stood out, Hollern said. Where other interns might have taken the entire summer to present a perfect presentation of why Brooks-Scanlon should not get into the manufactured home business, Smith reached that conclusion in two weeks. He suggested the company go into real estate instead, Hollern said.

“Bill was smart,” Hollern said. “I gave him the assignment, but two weeks later, he told me it was a dumb idea and presented the reasons why we shouldn’t do it. He did it even though he was worried he might get fired.

“It was typical Bill.”

Hollern said the company was starting a real estate company and offered Smith a job doing market research. That led to the 225,000-acre development of former ranch and timberland now called Black Butte Ranch. Today, Black Butte Ranch is a destination resort with two golf courses. Smith also developed 1,300 primary and secondary homesites in 14 projects and a 200-acre industrial park.

Smith worked his way up in Brooks Resources Corp., which is a publicly held real estate development company. For a decade he was the president, before forming William Smith Properties Inc. in 1983.

Smith’s vision was for a mixed-use development along the banks of the Deschutes River. It came at a time when there were more boarded up businesses in downtown Bend than open businesses, said Cannon-Miller.

Smith and the six partners purchased the 270-acre area for $6 million.

The preservation of the now-iconic Bend smokestacks were crucial to Smith’s vision. The first tenants moved in to what is now called the Old Mill District in 2000.

“Over the years, the Old Mill District has supported many non profits,” Cannon-Miller said. “The Smith family has supported many organizations, … including ours. He had the courage to take on his vision.”

Over the years, Smith served on the board of directors at St. Charles Health System, Bend Chamber of Commerce, Oregon Water Trust, the Oregon chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Deschutes Land Trust and the Deschutes River Conservancy.

But to his family and Teeny, the cat, he was just dad. Smith is survived by his wife, Trish Smith, his daughter, Marney Smith, and son, Matt Smith. Services are pending.

“(He) loved his cat and his people,” said his daughter Marney Smith. “He is known to many as the guy who developed the Old Mill District and perhaps that will be his legacy, but to us he was a beloved father and a wonderful husband. Building places, friendships, and communities was the pride of his life.

“We appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers as we mourn his passing and celebrate his life.”

— Suzanne Roig, The Bulletin

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