Economic development - time for new strategies, priorities

October 17, 2007 12:00 am

Change is very hard. We all know this from personal experience. But, sometimes it is necessary, and in retrospect quite healthy.

I'm a strong advocate for change in La Grande's economic development strategy. I say that with confidence but also with a certain amount of trepidation. Challenging the status quo is scary and those who advocate for it are often resented. But, I've been working on economic development in La Grande for over 12 years, and I think I have a perspective that deserves an open and calm discussion.

Consider the following facts. Between 2001 and 2006:

• La Grande's population grew at less than 1 percent per year.

• Union County saw the number of employed individuals decline, as well as our civilian labor force.

• The number of tourism-related jobs declined, while our two closest neighboring counties saw theirs increase.

• The net increase in payroll jobs was 110.

• The average salary per job has hovered around 77 percent of the state average.

As long as I have been on the La Grande City Council, we have talked about economic development and how to improve job creation and the overall economic well being of our city. And yet, as I look at the statistics, we are treading water.

There is some good news, an increase in payroll jobs, but since there are fewer employed individuals, that implies that some individuals are working more than one job to make a living. If the number of people in the labor force and the number of people employed are any indication, then we may not even be treading water.

No one is at fault or to blame. But we have been doing economic development the same way for more than 20 years. Perhaps we should be happy that we are doing as well as we are, that we are better off than some Eastern Oregon counties, or that we haven't fallen further behind. But I believe we have enormous potential and the challenge is to figure out how to capture and benefit from that potential.

No, we're not Bend (and don't want to be). We don't have the Geiser Grand or Wallowa Lake. But we do have a great university (one of only seven towns in Oregon that do), a first-rate hospital, an intact core downtown with loads of potential, more working artists than in Wallowa County, spectacular recreational activities within miles of La Grande, wonderful city parks, a pretty cool fire museum and absolutely beautiful scenery.

So why are we treading water? And maybe more important, are we willing to take a risk and see if some other strategy works better at creating jobs and attracting tourists?.

I've heard it said that La Grande doesn't have a "destination attraction." But 25 years ago, Baker didn't have the Interpretive Center and Joseph didn't have the bronze tourism trade.

Those attractions took vision and commitment and a willingness to change. Perhaps La Grande should focus some of its revenue on developing and sustaining such attractions?

The city has partnered with UCEDC on the Business-Technology Park. While UCEDC owns 90 percent of the land, the city paid for 100 percent of the infrastructure — $2.5 million. That infrastructure is surely an investment in both the city's economic development but also in our partnership with UCEDC.

Because of that infrastructure, UCEDC will see the value of its land increase 100 percent to 600 percent (at least). Surely that profit is enough to provide the city's share of operating revenue to UCEDC for the next 20 years.

I think we should take the jump. Let's shake things up. Let's focus La Grande's energy on developing a signature event and our downtown. Let's redirect and commit funds, not just rhetoric, to both. Yes, it's scary and yes it will cause discomfort. But what do we have to lose? The status quo?

The economic well being of the community is everyone's concern. I've given my thoughts on taking a leap, but we really need a community wide discussion. What are your hopes and dreams for La Grande? What do you think we should do as an economic development strategy?

Change is scary, but change comes no matter what. The question is: Can we determine our own future or allow it to control us?

The city council will be holding a work session on economic development on Monday, Oct. 29. Please join us for a discussion of our future.

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Johnson is mayor of La Grande and a professor of economics at Eastern Oregon University.