Bend, Oregon – Panels of economic experts, elected officials, community leaders and state agencies once again presented information in conjunction with Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Rural Development (RD) for a jointly hosted USDA Forum on Jobs & Economic Growth on January 28. The forum was held at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, a Central Oregon community with a 15% unemployment rate. A similar forum was held the previous week in Albany. Both forums were facilitated by Rural Development Initiatives, Inc.
Roger Lee, Executive Director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, kicked off the first panel with a discussion about which business sectors are thriving and which ones are not in this community that saw a 3.5% unemployment rate jump to 15% in just three years. Bend was hit hard by the housing bust where roughly half of the job losses were in manufacturing and construction.
Deschutes County Commissioner Alan Unger agreed that while “industry knows how to build a widget, they don’t know how to go through the land-use process.” He encouraged greater collaboration among citizens, businesses and interest groups as a method of building support for their ideas and projects. And he praised the work of The Oregon Consortium and Oregon Workforce Alliance (TOC/OWA), a public-private partnership that provides guidance and strategies for workforce training in 24 rural Oregon counties.
Oregon State University economist Bruce Sorte believed that counties who let their public officials take risks will succeed, and that federal agencies needed to be the backstop in the event those risks are not successful. He noted that we’re not in any particular economic cycle, but rather we are seeing a “fundamental restructuring of the whole economy.
The second half of the forum focused on green jobs/renewable energy, farming and agricultural exports. Bob Repine, Assistant Director for Energy Incentives at the Oregon Department of Energy saw many opportunities for Central Oregon in the growing green energy market. He spoke about a business that is turning water bottles into reusable products instead of shipping them off to India to be burned for energy. Mr. Repine mentioned that horizontal wind turbines are being developed for use in less windy areas, and that Oregon is looking at upgrading the grid system to transmit the electricity created from these new technologies. He cautioned, however, that we will need a quicker response from Oregon’s education system to keep up with worker training.
Phil Chang, program administrator for the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council was excited about the “new forest economy,” and our ability to take liabilities and turn them into assets. Mill residuals, hog fuel and smaller diameter trees can be used in biomass plants, the up-and-coming wood pellet industry, and other wood products. He praised the many programs offered by Rural Development, but would like to see changes made so the programs could be used on federal lands. Over 50% of Oregon’s land is owned by the federal government.
Forum participants extolled the many virtues of Rural Development programs, noting the staff was always there to answer the phone and provide guidance on projects and ideas. While residents were encouraged by the growth of the renewable energy industry, there were expressions of anxiety over the uncertainty of the financial markets, the lack of access to capital, and the continued decline of the housing industry. Some were concerned that green jobs were more trendy than sustainable, and that while government programs help at first, they might not over the long haul. Changes in land-use laws would help farmers who are focused on agri-tourism and developing internship possibilities to slow the out-migration of our young people. As one participant noted, “Our children are our biggest export.”
The smaller community of Sisters, Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs both expressed concerns about short timelines, the numerous regulations and their inability to be shovel-ready with projects under ARRA. However, Sisters was grateful for the sewer project funded with USDA Community Facilities program dollars. The city of Madras echoed similar concerns and also noted that over 20% of their workforce is uninsured, leading to rising costs for charitable care.
The congressional offices of U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were ably represented at the forum, both eager to share the many ideas and suggestions with Oregon’s Senators. There was general agreement among the 75+ participants that these kinds of forums needed to happen more often, and that rural Oregon needs greater partnerships between federal, state and nonprofit agencies to pool and leverage their limited resources.
If you would like to continue the conversation by making written comments, you may do so on this blog, or by posting to AskFSA@usda.gov and inserting “Oregon Jobs and Economic Growth Forum” in the subject line.
Written by: Vicki L. Walker, State Director, USDA Rural Development-Oregon
To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth”