May 20, 2001 11:00 pm

The cry for family wage jobs reverberates throughout the Grande Ronde Valley. What is being done about it?

As our population stays flat and the average worker makes less than $22,000 per year, the area continues to give out mixed signals about what people want. Sit down and visit with an average crowd of locals and youll still get a large number of them saying they dont want La Grande to become another Bend. We have to ask, what is it that they dont like about Bend?

Recently a Union County commissioner received an anonymous phone call from a recent immigrant from the Bend area who told the commissioner that he would never vote for anyone running for public office who supported growth. Thats a sick attitude. If La Grande and the county do not grow, then we will end up like Shaniko or some other former glory town.

We must ask, what are family wage jobs? How much income does it take to buy a $125,000 home, take an annual vacation, purchase a new car every five years, help put the children through the university and start building a retirement nest egg? Estimates would suggest that a single-family wage earner would have to gross between $40,000 and $45,000 a year.

This week a person who has lived in the area for more than 20 years shared that he and his wife were moving away because it was difficult for both of them to find good-paying, full-time jobs with benefits. He also said that almost all of his children have had to leave the area to find good-paying jobs in the Willamette Valley. This is not uncommon, even for those who have good-paying jobs. Its a sad commentary about a community. No future for the next generation.

Windows of opportunity exist. Right now, the window is wide open for inviting companies that want to generate power, using either natural gas or coal. One such company is Cogentrix, based in North Carolina. Currently Cogentrix has 22 power-generation plants in operation, most of them in the East or Midwest. Now they are looking to build in the West.

They are working on a plant that would be located near Madras. The proposed plant, serving a city the size of Portland, will cost about $400 million, create 300 construction jobs over a two-year period and provide 30 full-time jobs once it is completed. The tax assessment will be over $200 million and generate $3 million per year in local tax revenue.

We need to get out in the marketplace and find a company like Cogentrix to consider building a similar or even larger plant in Union County.

If we dont work harder and take the effort to find higher paying jobs for people in Union County, then eventually La Grande will be nothing more than a wide spot on the freeway to somewhere else.

We do need to grow, with both people and jobs. If we become another Bend, at least we would be prospering.