Along the Columbia River in Oregon is a town that sun-kissed athletes like to keep a secret because it's a great launching point for wind surfing. And until very recently, The Dalles had never felt the heat of a probing media spotlight. But then Google–that very famous Internet search engine–decided to come to town and build two computer centers, each as big as a football field.

Known as the end of the Oregon Trail, pioneers loaded their wagons onto rafts at The Dalles and floated down the Columbia to the mouth of the Williamette River and onward to Oregon City. And for generations, this idyllic Northwest town of 12,500 had escaped the hype that fell on its hip urban neighbors like Portland and Salem.

But now, there's a potential for a brute housing invasion, with an abundance of ready-to-build land and land prices that aren't anything close to what you'd find in other markets. A number of big builders are eyeing the town, although they are still tentative about whether to launch projects there.

“At this time we will be monitoring [The Dalles] as a possible future opportunity. We do not see it as a current opportunity nor do we anticipate any level of measurable impact to our core Portland/Vancouver market,” says Tom Jacobs, regional president of western states for Kimball Hill Homes.

RIVER DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH: Affordable land and low cost electricity, not to mention the area's natural beauty, attracted Google to The Dalles, Ore. Nevertheless, builders such as Centex Corp. and D.R. Horton are definitely taking a good look at The Dalles because Google is putting roots down there, according to Steve Smiley, a principal/managing director with Hanley Wood Market Intelligence (HWMI).

Google will not be the only company to relocate to the region, Smiley predicts. Its presence will attract others, such as suppliers and infrastructure support networks. “The demand for housing is going to increase, and the demand for higher-priced housing will increase,” he adds.

“The fact that other larger markets are slowing and have lots of competition would enhance the opportunity in a market like The Dalles,” he continues. “There may be more risk, however. There is less competition and potentially a big upside in these types of areas.”

Nevertheless, there is not a lot of new product so the region might be attractive for a medium or big builder, Smiley says. He describes The Dalles as a “B” housing market, not bad in a climate of sharp downturns in many parts of the country.

AT STAKE The total number of housing units in The Dalles stood at 5,246 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's up a tad from what it was a decade earlier, 4,843 housing units in 1990. In June 2006, the median price of a home was $202,300, according to Century 21 Realtors.

Nolan Young, city manager of The Dalles, notes that he's seen a 1 percent jump in housing growth over the last 10 years, but now it looks like it's edging closer to 2 percent. Pretty small pickings, but there's room for more growth. In the last two years, Young has seen a dozen or so new communities pop up in the area. Some of these communities are small though, offering about 50 home lots.

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