Community leaders seek to find ways to boost rural economy

How to develop the lagging economies of rural Linn County communities: That was the issue on the table Thursday, Nov. 17, as leaders from around the county met at Boulder Falls Center in Lebanon.

Some 60 economic development specialists, civic and community leaders spent three hours discussing how to transform rural Linn County into a leading rural region for livability and economic growth.

At the center of the conversation, facilitated by Lebanon native John Morgan, now of Salem, was a 24-page Rural Linn Economic Development proposal created over the last two years by graduates of the Ford Institute Leadership Program, which trains local residents for leadership roles in the community.

The writers describe their work as “a modest proposal for addressing economic vitality – or lack thereof – in rural Linn county.”

“This isn’t government doing this work,” Morgan said Thursday. “This is not academics. This is not a nonprofit. This is a group of your friends and neighbors saying, ‘How can we make a difference?’”

The authors, representing most of the communities in Linn County, are Sheryl Casteen, Sharon Kanareff, Craig Martin, Scott McDowell, Jo Ann McQueary, John Morrison, Ronn Passmore, Peggy Purkerson and Bob Thayer.

Their proposal, released to the public in August, calls for implementation of five specific strategies aimed at connecting area businesses with existing help from agencies and programs, navigating the regulatory environment, and marketing assistance in the age of social media.

The conversation Thursday focused on how to implement it.

County Commissioner Roger Nyquist opened the discussion by telling attendees that the county “lags behind the state in almost every sector” economically.

“A real concern,” he said, is “manufacturing is coming back at a much slower rate than the goods and services. Most concerning about those numbers is most concern low- or minimum-wage jobs and all the economists, who work part-time as Oregon legislators – not all of them,” he added, with a nod to Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, who was in the audience, “thought it would be a good idea to raise the cost of that labor for service jobs 40 percent over six years.

“As you look at the data, that’s a very troubling indicator and where we’re going to be going if we’re not smarter than the market conditions, moving forward.”

Particularly important, he said, is the Labor Force Participation Rate, which is the percentage of the population that is either employed or unemployed – either working or actively seeking work. It has dropped from just under 66 percent in 2000 to just over 62 percent in 2010, and then flatlined at about 57.5 percent from 2013 to 2015.

“We’re not back where we were in 2008,” he said.

Nyquist said he believes that the county has “just now” returned to the number of jobs it had in 2008 – and we have a lot more people.

“Things aren’t just coming along just fine.”

There are exceptions, he said. The Albany area is doing better, driven by metals-based industry.

So is Lebanon.

“You all have created your own economy,” Nyquist said, gesturing at the room. “This campus we’re sitting on today has become 3 to 5 percent of Linn County’s economy when, seven or eight years ago, it was a grass field. Pretty amazing.

“Things are generally really good, people tell me, in Lebanon.”

Agriculture, aerospace, healthcare and education “have all been strong,” he said.

The agriculture sector has also been “really good” in recent years, he said, but added that there are concerns and uncertainty about the dollar exchange rates and President-elect Trump’s trade strategies.

In September of 2014, he said, he concluded that “as the rest of the county was improving, it just wasn’t happening” in rural Linn County, “in our smaller towns – Mill City, Gates, Lyons, the area in the canyon, Sweet Home, Brownsville.”

Harrisburg, due to a housing boom, is in a little better shape, he added.

“It’s been surprising to me,” he said of the continued economic woes. “We need to take a more aggressive approach to revitalizing the economy of the most rural parts of Linn County.

One challenge in Linn County, Nyquist said, is the condition of the work force.

“Boy, I hear that from employers now, especially in the Albany area,” Nyquist said. “If you want a job in Linn County, there’s a job. I hear that a lot.”

One employer, who hires about 15 employees a month, said his rate of failure is 50 percent.

“They can’t pass a drug test or they can’t work with others. So we have a work force issue. And that’s something we can manage, we can improve, we can impact.”

Nyquist said the county has “land use challenges – it’s not as easy to get things done here, compared to other states.”

He noted that Lebanon has overcome some of those problems and “we’ll just have to work through it.”

Areas of “opportunity,” he said are improved workforce training, noting that the Albany Chamber of Commerce, businesses and city government have created the Pipeline program with LBCC, which has been extended to Lebanon, “where we’ve acknowledged that not every kid needs a four-year degree and $125,000 debt and a job as a barista to pay that debt off.

“There are good jobs in our area now, but we have to train these young people up, and get them motivated and give them skills to get them.”

He also cited “employability report cards” created by South Albany High School Principal Brent Belveal two years ago, which is sent home to parents, detailing how prepared young people are for life.

Nyquist and other speakers also highlighted the state Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) program, which focuses on catalyzing people and programs to advance rural economic progress.

McDowell and Kanaroff summarized the RLED proposal, which outlines five strategies (see accompanying box) to develop rural Linn County economies.

“We feel we have a well-thought-out plan,” McDowell said. “We feel like we have a locally driven plan, using the Ford Family Foundation and the leadership and the partnerships and the relationships we have in this room. We’ve vetted it through a lot of folks. We feel we have good goals and strategies that are effective, that are tangible, that we can actually make happen, which isn’t always the case.

We feel like we have a good job description here, if we need it and we feel like we’ve got a good organizational structure.”

Various speakers emphasized the need for communities to work together, to collaborate in solving regional problems such as the work force issues.

Kanaroff, who heads the South Santiam All Lands Collaborative, said existing organizations are already doing parts of what RLED proposes “and doing it well, but it’s hard for them to focus on rural Linn county. We don’t want to supplant what they are doing; we want to supplement it and we want to collaborate with them.”

McDowell, Brownsville city manager, said the proposal could be pursued through an independent organization or an existing one, but he said the key is to have a director “with boots on the ground, that can get out there and do the work and make the goals tangible – connect the dots.”

Participants agreed that individual communities and entities need to get out of their “silos” and work together if progress is to be made.

Sweet Home Mayor Jim Gourley said there needs to be discussion “as to why we need to have regional economic development. Most people think it is just their city.”

Representatives of Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, Business Oregon and the Governor’s Solutions Team outlined opportunities presented by the RAIN program, loans and other aid offered to rural communities.

Participants offered various suggestions regarding existing entities around the state doing the kind of work proposed in the RLED and whether a local organization could collaborate with an existing group.

Education was another big discussion point.

Janet Steele of the Albany Chamber of Commerce said communities need to collaborate through a Pipeline program to help young people develop skills that will help them be employable.

“East Linn County has a lower graduation rate in their high schools, and I think we all know that, and some of the other places too, so we need to work together to build that up. We need to show them that there is a path to productive jobs, with the right kind of skills, showing up on time, everything that we’ve been talking about today.

“Anything we can do to help build that in our area will only enhance the opportunities we have.”

Morgan and audience members threw out ideas on whether it would be possible to pursue the proposal in conjunction with an existing entity. Another big discussion point was how to finance the $150,000 cost of hiring a director and engaging the plan.

“There’s nothing wrong with your plan,” said John Pascone of Lebanon, who leads the Albany-Millersburg Economic Development Corp. “Your plan is a wonderful plan. The problem is the budget. Who steps up to make the budget?”

He noted that funding for AMEDC has varied over the years since its founding in 1983, coming from both government and private sources.

“If you want an economic development organization that’s regional, someone’s got to step to the plate.”

He said the economic development model “that works” requires annual funding from cities and counties.

“You’re like a farmer; you’re planting seeds every year and you hope to get the jobs and prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with the plan other than who’s going to fund it on a regular basis.”

He said expanding AMEDC to serve the entire county would be “no problem” except his staff is inadequate for that task.

Morgan said another meeting will be held in the spring and asked attendees to sign up for working groups that would address the various needs presented by the proposal.