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Planning group explores economic growth

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The Lebanon Planning Commission in an April 26 work session heard a report on an economic opportunities analysis meant to encourage local economic growth.
The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development awarded the city a $55,000 grant for the analysis in November 2021. Three months later, the city partnered with Beth Goodman, senior policy advisor at ECONorthwest, a Portland-based consulting firm specializing in economics, finance and planning. An advisory committee of members from the Lebanon City Council, planning commission, chamber of commerce and area businesses was also formed.
According to Community Development Director Kelly Hart, the EOA’s goals were to project the amount of land needed to accommodate employment growth into 2043, evaluate existing employment and land supplies to determine if enough buildable land existed to meet that need, help the city understand its economic opportunities, and fulfill state requirements.
Hart also noted that the EOA ties in with the planning commission’s in-progress housing production strategy, as the project advisory committee identified one of the biggest economic drivers for potential businesses was the need for available, affordable housing.
“The work we’re doing on the housing production strategy side of the equation directly impacts the economic development growth and prosperity for the community,” she said.
According to Goodman, affordable housing attracts employers, but high-wage employers make affordable housing possible for employees.
“If you have people who are better employed and more jobs that pay better, then people are more able to afford housing,” she said.
Goodman said developed and vacant land was identified within the urban growth boundary, constraints were explored, and floodways, flood plains and areas susceptible to landslides and wetlands were examined. She added that the city lacked an inventory of local wetlands, an amount the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory “vastly underestimates.”
“Wetlands are an issue that figured into our discussions about land and buildability, and whether you have enough land for development,” she said.
Of the vacant and partially vacant unconstrained land, about 620 industrial, 454 mixed use and 30 commercial acres were identified. Much of the industrial land included wetlands, “so developing is challenging and may require wetlands mitigation,” she said.
The industrial sites were identified in 1980. Goodman suggested protecting the prime industrial sites (mostly located on the city’s west edge) but added that the city might consider rezoning industrial zones that weren’t as desirable for such use.
National, state and local economic trends have revealed: a tight labor market and increasing labor costs; seemingly leveling high inflation rates; rising housing costs; an aging population moving into retirement; an increase in work-from-home trends; an Internet-affected retail sector; and increases in automated work.
“All of this forms the basis for how we’re thinking about changes and growth over the next 20 years,” Goodman said.
According to the most recent available data (2019), about 5,400 people commute to Lebanon for work, 6,100 travel outside the city and 1,800 live and work within it. However, according to Goodman, current, post-pandemic numbers may likely be quite different.
“I think there’s more work-from-home, but about 60% to 70% of jobs can’t work from home all that often (restaurants, factories, etc.),” she said. “But what we know is two-thirds of your workforce don’t live in Lebanon. It’s very common.”
Planning Commissioner David McClain commented that the data seemed to indicate a need to build more homes and encourage more businesses into town.
“I think that’s true,” Goodman replied. “Housing affordability is such a hot topic, but lack of housing for people who work at businesses in any of our communities is an enormous problem.”
Employment data from 2019 also indicates that the largest sectors within city boundaries include private educational services (the Western University of Health Sciences campus), health care, social assistance, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and utilities. These sectors provide about half of Lebanon’s jobs and pay above-average wages. Other large sectors – which include retail, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services – pay below-average wages.
“The conclusion I draw from those is you want to grow industries as much as you can that have higher wages,” Goodman said. “You also need some growth in your industries that (are providing those) lower wages. But to the extent that you can grow manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and utilities, and your education and health services, those are certainly sectors I would consider for growth.”
Lebanon offers some competitive advantages over other communities, like WesternU and Linn-Benton Community College’s Advanced Transportation Technology & Heavy Equipment Centers, as well as warehousing, manufacturing, transportation and training opportunities. The city also excels with its industrial- and commercial-worker employment base, connections to highways 20 and 34, proximity to Interstate 5, rail lines, a high quality of life, small-town atmosphere, health-service access, and access to outdoor recreation and parks.
“These are all things that would make a business that could land anywhere choose to live in Lebanon if Lebanon felt like the right fit for them,” Goodman said.
Disadvantages include Highway 20 congestion, limited commercial land, freight traffic, limited public transportation and aging infrastructure.
Goodman listed industries in the city with the most growth potential, like manufacturing, warehouse and distribution, medical services and health care education, aviation-related industries, residential and visitor services (food, entertainment, lodging, repair work, etc.), and, possibly, food processing.
“As we think about these industries, we think about the kind of land you have, its location, its access to transportation and that kind of thing,” Goodman said. “You have land that is, generally speaking, suited for these kinds of industries.”
When forecasting local employment growth, ECONorthwest estimated a population increase of 1.8% a year and 4,200 new jobs (a 43% increase) over the next 20 years, mostly in industrial and commercial services. The firm determined that the city has “more than enough” land to accommodate this growth.
“But wetlands are going to continue to strain development, especially industrial, because of how wet your land is,” Goodman said.
ECONorthwest developed goals to help the city grow economically. They include ensuring living and working opportunities, encouraging a diverse mixture of business types (which helps support a community if a particular industry, like timber, declines), ensuring sufficient land and infrastructure for growth, supporting business growth and retention, attracting new and diverse businesses, and supporting workforce development and entrepreneurial training.
Actions to support these goals include recommending industrial landowners have certified “shovel-ready” land, rezoning to allow for more commercial use around Airport Road and Grant Street, coordinating with government agencies on wetland issues, supporting the Lebanon Downtown Association, initiating a project to increase activity along Highway 20 south of downtown, continuing to work with Rural Economic Alliance (REAL), and connecting with existing programs that link businesses with the local workforce.
To implement these strategies, Hart said, the city will update the comprehensive plan and develop a work plan to achieve the goals.