‘Pioneer’-ing dentist reflects on two decades in Ridgefield

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In 1997, Ridgefield was not quite the bustling center of growth it is today. According to census data, the city had a population of about 2,000 at that time, less than half of what the current city has.

That year, a small dental operation set up at a point now in city limits that historically had been referred to as “Pioneer” along 10th Avenue. The practice is still there, now 20 years in the same location, though the scenery has changed with the rapid development of what used to be a sleepy corner of Clark County 

The practice’s owner and namesake, Dr. Joseph Sepe, isn’t a native of Clark County or the Pacific Northwest. He grew up in New York before going to dental school in Seattle, bringing him to the region where he’d spend his career.

The change from the hustle of Long Island to what was a fairly rural area was part of Sepe’s plan. Practicing in a less chaotic setting was one of his initial goals.

“I still remember, back in high school thinking about how nice it would be to live in a rural community,” Sepe said. “I had never seen a cow until I was 16 years old.”

After spending several years as an associate dentist in Vancouver, Sepe decided to start his own practice when he found that there was a vacancy at the current location. At that point neither Ridgefield or La Center had its own practice, he said, with Battle Ground having three practices at that time.

Next month marks the 20th anniversary for the office. 

“When we opened there was no Dollar Tree, or Tri-Mountain Plaza. Duluth had a blinking yellow light east to west and a blinking red north to south,” Sepe wrote in an email to The Reflector. Now both developments are here and that intersection has a substantial traffic light/intersection fresh off the improvement project on state Route 502.

From the start Sepe said the community had been welcoming to his practice and eventually his family began doing “things you do in a small town” — getting involved with local clubs and youth sports. The practice is colloquially known as “Pioneer Dental” though it is not its official name, but due to its location (and possibly due to it being the first in the area) the nickname stuck.

Initially Sepe was hesitant about the name as it tended to conjure up images of the Old West — not a time or setting particularly known for good dental care. However with the moniker getting used more through word-of-mouth and social media it made sense to accept the nickname.

From the practice’s side, Sepe said the advancement of technology was the biggest change in the dental industry. Commonplace procedures like dental implants were in their infancy when he began, he gave as an example.

Changes in technology, especially expensive processes like digital imaging, have also led to challenges specific to a small practice like Sepe’s, he said. However, thanks to partnerships with local specialists in “a team approach to practicing dentistry” the office is able to keep pace.

As to the changes in the community, Sepe said he has seen a demographic shift.

“The town’s gotten younger, a lot more families,” Sepe said, citing the types of developments being put in the city in recent years. 

The practice does have some families who have been patients more or less from the start.

“We’ve had a couple of families we have seen for four generations, so it’s been fun to watch the kids grow up,” said Nan Ryan, one of Sepe’s long-serving staff. 

Sepe said three of his staff have been there since the office opened.

“Patients like that. They like to see the same face,” Sepe said.

Another staff member who has been in for the long haul, Letha LaPole, said early in the practice Sepe was getting a lot of suggestions to move the practice to East County, where “everybody” was flocking to at that time.

Sepe didn’t, and he doesn’t have any regrets about staying where he is.

“To be honest with you, I guess there could be more lucrative (areas), but how much more lucrative do you want to be?” Sepe said. “This is our home … there’s more rewards than just financial.”

As to what has kept the business going, quality of care and customer service were big aspects he believed has led to success. 

“I can’t say it enough, people here are nice,” Sepe said about his staff, adding it wasn’t so much that people kept coming back to see him necessarily, but they came for his staff with whom families spanning multiple generations have established relationships.

Focusing on those areas over the years, Sepe has learned how to get the best people for his practice.

“You can’t teach nice; you hire nice people,” Sepe said, “especially in a dental office, because people don’t want to come to the dentist, right?”

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