Jason Yohannan, regional economist for Work Source Oregon, talks about Wallowa County job numbers at Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce’s after-hours report on the economy. KATY NESBITT/The Observer
by KATY NESBITT / The Observer
Local officials give presentations at chamber’s annual report on the economy
Wallowa County’s unemployment dropped to 10 percent in 2012, the lowest it has been since it spiked to 12 percent in 2009.
Government jobs are continuing to shrink in the county, primarily within the U.S. Forest Service, but private sector jobs increased in 2012 to a four-year high, said Jason Yohannan, regional economist for Work Source Oregon.
“Government had the biggest losses in jobs and are less than half what they were 20 years ago,” Yohannan said.
The Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual after-hours report on the economy Feb. 21. Terry Bates, owner of Wallowa County Nursery, said that the reduction in government jobs would likely lead to a reduction in consumer spending since those are the well-paid jobs.
Yohannan agreed and said, “The average wage has not kept pace. Federal jobs were the harshest hit and the highest paying — a compounding factor.”
Statewide, despite a growing population, the labor force seems to be shrinking, said Yohannan. He said he has a few theories. The first is that the Baby Boomers are aging and retiring. The second is that labor force participation by teens is dropping. A report from the Work Source is expected later this year.
In February 2008, 147,700 jobs were lost statewide, Yohannan said. To date, the state has recovered 48,200, or a third of that number. One in three unemployed Oregonians have been jobless for 27 weeks or longer.
“We won’t regain pre-recession employment levels until the second quarter of 2015,” said Yohannan.
Because of the lack of large employers, Eastern Oregonians bring in lower wages and fewer benefits than workers in Western Oregon, said Yohannan, another factor that affects the region’s economic bottom line.
John Williams, Wallowa County’s OSU Extension agent, said the county’s total economy was $425 million in 2012, with agriculture making up $60 million.
Cattle led farm gate sales with $27.4 million, up from last year’s $25.8 million. Hay sales were a distant second with $18.9 million in sales, down from $19.2 million in 2011.
Other crops with increased sales in 2012 were wheat with $7.7 million, up from $6.2 million; barley sales were $1.3 million, up from $730,000; canola was at $412,000, up from $334,000; and oats were at $244,000, up from $129,000.
Worldwide demand for beef continues to rise and prices remain high, Williams said. The on-going effects of drought have hurt the supply in much of the nation’s cattle and hay-producing states. These just so happen to be Wallowa County’s two biggest crops with cattle providing 45 percent of farm gate sales and hay bringing in 31 percent. The county boasted more than 24,000 head of cattle as of Jan. 1 and last year harvested 12,405 acres of hay.
Locally, the dry summer affected cattle crops in the overall weight of fall calves because of dry grass conditions, Williams said.
Overall, natural resource-based production supports 40 percent of the county’s economy and outdoor-related tourism such as hunting, fishing, and backcountry hiking and skiing make up 25 percent.
A survey conducted last summer on the streets of Wallowa County towns and in the campgrounds revealed that most tourists traveled 300 to 400 miles from home, a statistic that has remained constant for many years.
Mike Hayward, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, wrapped up the economic report with what he called some “positives.”
He first listed the Integrated Biomass campus in Wallowa that has taken over the former D.R. Johnson mill site. The mill — which makes firewood, fenceposts and poles, and supplies chips for wood-fired boilers — employs 16 people. He predicts that number will increase in the coming years. With the mill’s thermal and power-generating capabilities, installing greenhouses is even a possibility.
Hayward said, “The sky’s the limit.”
He applauded the opening last fall of the Josephy Arts Center on Joseph’s Main Street that provides not only educational and entertainment offerings for the community, but will bring in arts-related tourism this summer.
A recent development, under Gov. John Kitzhaber’s economic development umbrella, is $250,000 in the state’s budget for a feasibility study that will determine how best to replace the Wallowa Lake Dam, a nearly 100-year-old facility that supplies irrigation water to the upper Wallowa Valley.
One idea, Hayward said, was if the dam could be replaced with a larger storage capacity, water could be sold downstream to farmers in the Umatilla Basin.
Hayward also mentioned the $5 million Hurricane Creek Road rehabilitation project scheduled for this summer, which will create some local jobs.
“I know it will be a pain in the neck for people who live near the road for five months, but in the end it will be an economic positive.”