Mayor calls for economic summit

By By Bill Rautenstrauch The Observer July 04, 2012 01:10 pm

La Grande Mayor Daniel Pokorney thinks it’s time to check economic pulses in the city and surrounding regions.

During a recent city council work session, Pokorney called for a broad-based summit designed to determine whether local leaders can do more for the area’s economic health. He passed out a written statement giving his views on the subject.

“This is an idea I think needs to be discussed by a wide range of interests in the community,” he said. “I have asked many of the people who I will suggest we invite, and everyone, to the person, was enthusiastic about it and said they would make it a priority to attend.”

Pokorney said he envisions a four-hour meeting at the Blue Mountain Conference Center, facilitated by the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District or another entity involved in economic issues. One or two economic development professionals would speak, then the conference would turn to specific local issues.

“We’d ask questions like, how are we really doing? What could we do better? Is government working with the people or is there a perception that government is standing in the way?” Pokorney said.

Pokorney presented a lengthy list of potential invitees, including La Grande and Union County governments, representatives from the cities of Union, Summerville, Elgin, Island City, North Powder, Cove and Imbler, people from Eastern Oregon University, and others.

The council and others at the table agreed the idea is worth pursuing, but left the details to be worked out later. Mark Davidson, a Union County Commissioner and member of the Union County Economic Development Corporation board member, was one saying the idea has merit.

“I don’t think its redundant at all,” Davidson said in answer to a comment that similar conferences have been held before. “You’ve got some good qualified people here in La Grande to talk to, and it would be nice to invite people from outside the area also.”

The work session, taking place June 25, was called to discuss items related to local economic development. In other talk, Dan Stark, executive director of the Union County Economic Development Corporation, gave the council an update on his organization’s recent activities.

Stark said UCEDC’s Business Retention and Expansion Task Force has completed its first round of surveys but hadn’t yet compiled a final report. Last winter and spring, UCEDC visited with more than 30 local companies, querying them about  products and services, buyer and seller relationships, industry status, work force issues and more.

Originally, UCEDC, a non-profit private corporation that partners with the city and Union County on economic development issues, planned to have the first round done in March. Stark said compilation of the data took longer than expected and that UCEDC expected to have the final report for its partners soon.

On another subject, Stark talked about UCEDC’s business recruitment efforts. He said those efforts have intensified, with plans in the works for more Web advertising and a direct mail campaign.

“We’re working feverishly to get the Website up, and we’ll be sending 3,000 post cards to companies,” he said. He added that efforts will include a telephone campaign.

“We will have a script and a phone log, and a protocol to follow when people show some interest,” he said.

Stark said the business recruitment program has identified manufacturing, recreational vehicle industry supply support, and secondary wood products as target industries. He said the program is focusing on companies in California and Washington that might be looking for a new home.

“We’re out looking for businesses with 5-50 employees who are looking to expand or move. If you send out 3,000 post cards, one percent response will be good,” he said.

Also during the work session, La Grande Community and Economic Development Director Charlie Mitchell gave an update on the city’s economic development plan, touching on subjects ranging from downtown revitalization, to business retention and expansion, workforce availability issues, a retail development strategy, and more. 

Mitchell said downtown revitalization is at the top of a priority list, and that the city is on track because it is currently doing the “Big H” streetscape project downtown.

“I don’t believe there’s much need for discussion on this, because it’s where our efforts are,” he said.

On the business retention and recruitment issue, Mitchell said he thinks the city should wait for completion of the UCEDC survey before deciding on future direction. Those attending the meeting seemed to agree.

“I’d like to see the report and then decide what the city’s role should be,” said Councilor John Bozarth.

When discussion swung around to retail development in the downtown area, Bozarth said he thinks the issue needs immediate and proactive attention, and that the community and economic development director should be working more intensely on it.

City council work sessions provide the council with the chance to informally discuss issues and exchange ideas, not to make decisions or direct staff to a specific action.