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Nugget News

Engineers find a home and a business hub in Sisters
By Jim Cornelius

Photo by Lynn Woodward

Benny and Julie Benson were searching for a better way of life when they left California in 2006. They found it amid the tall pine trees and towering mountains of Sisters Country. And they also found that Sisters was a viable headquarters for an engineering company that now builds and manages renewable energy power plants in places as far flung as Texas, Florida, California, Mexico and South Korea.

ENERGYneering Solutions Inc. (ESI) provides engineering and design for landfill gas (LFG) collection, biogas pretreatment systems, biogas-to-energy facilities, and biomass thermal facilities – all out of an office at Sisters Airport, which the Bensons recently purchased.

Their success is providing a model of economic development in Sisters.

Benny and Julie grew up in Colorado, and met in college studying mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Their careers in the engineering field took them to Southern California in what Benny calls "a two-year stint that lasted 17 years."
"As engineers we understood that you could get better employment and better pay," Julie said.

But those came at a cost. Time lost in traffic, stress, and a culture that didn't appeal to a couple with a child hitting school age.

"I didn't like what I was seeing," Julie said.

The Bensons thought about returning to Colorado, but their home state now had many of the ills they were trying to escape.

Benny was working on the Dry Creek Landfill Project in Medford in 2005 when they decided to make a move.
Benny recalled that they thought, "Wouldn't it be better a year from now to say 'that was a bad idea,' instead of saying five years from now, 'I wish we woulda...'"

After taking a look at Bend, they settled on Sisters.

Benny continued to work on the Medford project. "I'm a pilot, so I commuted from Sisters by airplane," Benny explained.

Soon, Julie and Benny decided to start their own company, based in Sisters. ENERGYneering Solutions Inc. was born.

According to Benny, Sisters has the infrastructure necessary to operate his now-international business.

"Internet, phone and flight," he says. "It doesn't matter where you live. I traveled as much in California as I do here."

Benny also noted that ESI has found all the professional services and other business support they need in Sisters Country.

The Bensons found the lifestyle they wanted: Enough land to have horses and other livestock, a good ski mountain less than an hour away, pine trees. And that lifestyle is good for their business.

"In Sisters, you can really attract talent, starting with lifestyle and the opportunity to build a career off that," Benny says.

An intense career, especially one that involves lots of travel, can be stressful on families, the Bensons note.
"It's better if you live in a cool place," Benny says. "If you can keep your family happy, you're going to have a lot more successful career."

And plenty have. ESI grew from seven employees last year to 30 now – engineers, programmers and mechanics, all making good money and contributing to the Sisters economy.

"We want to support primary wage earners – engineers and IT people," Julie says.

Those wage earners buy houses, eat in local restaurants, patronize local businesses.

Benny and Julie have contributed to the community in other ways. In 2009, Julie sat on the Sisters School District budget committee, watching funds shrink as the nation slid into recession. She put her engineering mindset to work on ways to save money.

"Looking at the utilities, my eyebrows went up into my hair because I thought – this is something we could help with."

The result of that brainstorming is a biomass boiler designed and built by ESI for Sisters High School. The project drew statewide attention and a visit from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber the day the boiler went on line.

Kitzhaber said of the project: "This innovative project ... is a true triple-bottom-line win. It is going to create jobs at a time we desperately need them. It is going to maintain the health of the surrounding forests. It is going to save the school $35,000 to $65,000 per year that can be reinvested right back into the classroom."

Staying on the cutting edge of technology, ENERGYneering Solutions Inc. has acquired one of the few three-dimensional printers in Oregon. In addition to using it to create detailed models of their power plant projects, they are making it available to other businesses where three-dimensional modeling is useful.

The couple recently purchased Sisters Eagle Airport, where ENERGYneering Solutions Inc. is located.
They plan to maintain the airport as a public safety asset – a landing zone for AirLink emergency helicopter flights and a staging area for wildland firefighting aircraft.

They also plan to enhance the airport as a resource for tourism and for people with businesses like their own.
That better way of life has panned out for the Bensons. Their daughter Cammi, 14, has thrived. Studying through the Oregon Virtual Academy has allowed her to pursue her equestrian passions and her music at a very high level.

Sisters Economic Development Manager Mac Hay says, "Julie and Benny Benson are classic examples, poster child material, showing the importance of combining a successful business with community involvement. The Bensons are hard working, talented and creative members of our Sisters Country community...what they do best is observe, listen, create and act."

They've left the rat race far behind – and the Bensons couldn't be happier with the choices they've made.

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