ON THE ROAD FOR OREGON BUSINESS
By Bill Rautenstrauch
The economic hopes and dreams of La Grande and Northeast Oregon came into focus Tuesday as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and other representatives of the Oregon Business Plan met with local leaders in a forum at Eastern Oregon University.
Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Committee, and Bill Thorndike, chair of the Plan's steering committee, were among commission leaders visiting La Grande as part of a five-day, statewide bus tour.
Input gathered from the tour will help shape the agenda for the third annual Economic Leadership Summit in Portland Dec. 6.
"We want to send a message that our business strategy is bottom-up and not top down," Wyden said in opening remarks. "We want to get out and meet with people and bring their ideas to the December session."
Farming and natural resources, education and telecommunications were issues brought out by local people.
Dale Case, a local farmer and businessman who serves as president of the Union County Economic Development Corporation, was a panelist.
He stressed the importance of agriculture and timber to the region's economic base.
"Eastern Oregon is very dependent on its resources. Resources are what we're all about," Case said.
Union County Commissioner Colleen MacLeod, sitting in the audience, echoed that statement.
"We're pretty tenacious here. We haven't given up on our timber and agriculture. We know how important they are," she said.
Case spoke extensively on changes farming has undergone, including irrigation methods, the use of electronic technology, and drastically changing markets.
He said that education will continue to play an important role in agriculture.
"Today's young farmer is college educated. He has to be to keep up with the technology," Case said. He urged that K-12 and post-secondary education continue to be stressed in the Oregon Business Plan.
In other comments, Case noted that markets have changed along with technology and farming methods.
"Of the 30,000 acres of wheat we raise here, 80 percent is exported," he said.
Case said he thinks it is important to strengthen trade infrastructure, and that improved rail transportation should be a priority.
He also said he thought some government regulations pertaining to farming and natural resource use should be eased.
Timber issues were to be addressed during the forum by Boise Cascade's Bruce Cartmel.
However, Cartmel had to bow out as a panelist because he was showing Boise's new owners around La Grande.
Greg Barreto of La Grande-based Barreto Manufacturing was a panel member. His wide-ranging talk included comments on education, social problems, and trade with China.
When Barreto finished his talk, the panel heard comments from the audience.
One who spoke up was Mike Gooderham, who is active in rural health care and local emergency medical services.
Gooderham, who among other things serves on the Union County Ambulance Commission, said he is active in a movement to establish a school for paramedics at Eastern Oregon University.
"We have a unique desire to train paramedics locally," he said. "We need to enhance educational opportunities so our paramedics don't have to go away for 24 months to train. We need some political help to get that job started."
More than one person said they hope to see improved telecommunications, especially service to outlying communities.
"We are not pushing our deployment into the last mile," said health care telecommunications consultant Cathy Britain. "In Oregon there are 20 rural hospitals that are vulnerable, not able to benefit from the telecommunications infrastructure."
Terry Edvalson, a local education and business consultant, said a lack of high-speed connection makes it nearly impossible for rural people to do business with their computers.
"I could not do business here if I did not have access to broadband. If I live in Elgin or Union or Cove, I don't have it," Edvalson said.
Dan Stark, an economic development consultant, said he thinks money for business startups and innovations is an important issue.
"I'd like to see venture capital getting out here to the rural areas," he said.
The Oregon Business Plan is an initiative of Oregon's business community to shape a vision for what the state's economy could look like in the next 10 years.
Wyden said much of the plan's success depends on successful partnerships between the public and private sectors.
"We're never going back to the old days when the business people were over there, and the political leadership over there, and you couldn't get them together," he said.
About 50 people showed up for the forum. Tim Seydel of Eastern's Office of University Advancement said he was pleased with that number.
"We were very pleased with the turnout, and even more pleased we could have the forum on campus," Seydel said.
"I think the board heard a clear message: education equals economic development."