Survey results upbeat

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 19, 2012 09:19 am

Boise Cascade Corp. was one of 37 companies participating in the Union County Economic Development  Corporationís recent business visitation. Boiseís particleboard plant near Island City, pictured above, employs about 90 people. Most businesses taking part in the survey said they expect better economic times ahead.  CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
Boise Cascade Corp. was one of 37 companies participating in the Union County Economic Development Corporationís recent business visitation. Boiseís particleboard plant near Island City, pictured above, employs about 90 people. Most businesses taking part in the survey said they expect better economic times ahead. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

Half of the 37 Union County firms interviewed reported an increase in sales of products and services during economic downturn, and most companies envision adding more workers in future 

Even though hit hard by the Great Recession, Union County’s business community was surprisingly upbeat in a recent business visitation survey done by the Union County Economic Development Corporation. 

In 2011, UCEDC, a private, non-profit group that works to support local business and improve economic development, sent six volunteer interview teams to quiz companies on products and services, the states of respective industries, the local business climate, thoughts on past performance, future expectations and more. Survey results were compiled this year, and released Monday following review by UCEDC’s Business Retention and Expansion Program.

Of 48 local businesses contacted by program representatives, 37 agreed to an interview. They ranged from major employers like Boise Cascade Corp., Grande Ronde Hospital and Eastern Oregon University, to smaller companies that employ fewer than 10 workers.

An executive report released with the results this week said the survey indicates that diversity helped Union County weather the economic downturn better than surrounding counties, and that the companies surveyed are looking forward to an improvement in conditions.

According to the results, almost one half of the companies interviewed said sales of products and services declined during the economic downturn that began in 2008, but an equal percentage said sales increased. 

The survey also shows that most the companies did a good job keeping their employees at work during a time when Union County saw unemployment top 10 percent. Not only that, most of the surveyed firms believe they’ll be adding employees in the future.

“The aggregate decline in employment reported by the firms was only 1.7 percent, far lower than that experienced by the county as a whole,” the report said. “Going forward the firms expect to see a rebound in employment and additional gains in the numbers of employed at these firms.”

On the downside, the companies interviewed said they depend on local and regional markets for their success, and see sluggish growth as an obstacle to overcome. Most said they hope for growth in the number of businesses in the county, growth in family wage jobs and growth in population.

Among other problems cited by the companies is a lack of access to skilled and educated workers, whether in the local workforce or thorough recruitment outside the county. Causes include lower-than-average wages and a lack of opportunity to move up.

“Retention of these workers is a problem given the local wage scales and the general lack of advancement opportunities in the local economy,” the executive summary said.

In a related concern, many of the companies said a lack of a community college and vocational education resources in the county hurts the health of the economy and future growth. 

The report said the ability to respond to educational and technical training needs of the local economy is seen as essential to retention and expansion of existing firms.

Some other disadvantages of doing business in Union County, according to the survey results, include costs of shipping goods in and out, winter driving restrictions, distance from urban areas and distance to the nearest commercial air service.

The firms also listed things they see as advantages. Those included strong local relationships, a central location in Northeast Oregon and the region’s location on Interstate 84 between Boise and Portland.

Executive Director Dan Stark said Tuesday the 37 companies in the survey were diverse examples of why Union County’s economy did better than those of neighboring counties during the recession.

“They were all fairly positive about job retention, and they said they thought that things were going to pick up,” he said. He said the companies provided a good picture of Union County’s economic diversity, which includes a strong state and federal presence, Eastern Oregon University, manufacturing concerns, a growing health care industry and an exceptionally healthy agricultural sector.

But Stark added that the survey isn’t perfect, doesn’t give a complete picture of the difficulties the local retail trade saw during the recession, or cover at length the county’s vibrant agricultural industry and its stunning successes the last few years. 

“We could do 37 other companies and have a completely different picture,” Stark said.

But he added that this is only the first round. The information derived from the survey will be used in targeting ongoing activities of the business retention and expansion program and will serve as a baseline to measure changes in the economy when another survey is conducted in 2014. 

UCEDC plans to conduct interviews every three to five years.