Mary McCracken

My Voice columns reflect the views of the author only. My Voice columns should be 500-700 words or as space allows. Submissions should include a portrait-type photograph of the author. Authors also should include their full name, age, occupation and relevant organizational memberships. We edit submissions for brevity, grammar, taste and legal reasons. We do not fact check. We reject those published elsewhere. Send columns to La Grande Observer, 1406 5th St., La Grande, Ore., 97850, fax them to 541-963-7804 or email them to .

By defining economy in terms of circulation of money, possibilities abound for improving Union County’s economy.

Residents’ everyday spending decisions help determine small town economies. Buying from locally owned businesses rather than from corporate retailers has huge economic consequences. Corporate businesses send profits to national headquarters to become stockholder gains whereas profits from locally owned businesses get re-spent or invested locally.

Utility bills also move money directly out of the area. Union County is blessed with ample sun and wind. The price for photovoltaic and solar hot water systems has dropped dramatically as output continues to rise. It’s time OTEC and local governments incentivize the installation of renewable energy systems. Average families would spend their saved money here. Nothing like having the sun and wind power our economy.

Forming a local investment group would ensure that even savings remain connected. Most national banks invest savings into distant enterprises. Locally invested money directly advances the investor’s chosen projects and provide personal satisfaction.

Besides recirculating money, a growing economy must bring in outside money. We are far from most raw materials and major markets and are boxed in by sketchy highway conditions much of the year. That combination doesn’t bode well for industrial growth. So where do we turn?

What do we most value about this place we call home? My list includes friendly small towns, access to public land, four seasons, a university, small town festivals and events. Simply cultivating what we love could grow our economy without destroying the assets.

Today’s families value outdoor recreation. Our public lands and varied seasons are tremendous recreational assets. Concentrated efforts toward promoting hiking, birding, riding horses, snowshoeing and cross county running and skiing could all draw visitors year around.

Recreational biking is already flourishing here due to coordinated efforts by Mountain Works and local cyclists. Road signs were installed, maps printed, and inviting descriptions written about varied riders in all seasons. Now bicycle tourism benefits the entire county.

Conversely the Union Wallowa Railroad is far from achieving its full potential. The Elgin excursion train runs a few times a year, primarily serving elderly tour groups stopping briefly to enjoy a nostalgic ride out of Elgin and back. The portion from Wallowa to Enterprise utilizes the tracks for pedal powered carts enjoyed by visitors all summer. However the most spectacular canyon section remains unused. The highway between the counties both connects and divides Union and Wallowa Counties. Travel is connected for cars and trucks. But the highway is extremely difficult and hazardous for non motorized travel. If the tracks through the canyon were replaced with a trail, tourists and residents alike would flock to it. Unlike the costly train and pedal carts, locals would gain free access to priceless year-round recreation.

Federal forests surrounding our towns once fueled a voracious timber economy. Miles of trails and former logging roads remain. Better maps, descriptions and trailhead signage would encourage use by those outside our area. Many hikers and horse owners living in metropolitan areas are constantly looking for new trails with maps and descriptions. The fairgrounds could board horses while riders sleep and eat in town. Currently MERA primarily attracts vacationing bikers and archers. By designating some trails exclusively for hikers and equestrians MERA could attract more populous and diverse visitors. A booklet to help hikers and horse owners better navigate the area should reap good returns.

Ladd Marsh is the county’s best kept secret. Its annual weekend Birdathon draws and enthralls birders of all levels. Ladd Marsh’s restoration has involved multiyear investments of time and money yet isn’t widely visited. Malheur’s visitor center has visitors from around the world. Adding a visitors’ center to Ladd Marsh would draw birders to our towns.

After a full day of recreation and a good meal, vacationers look for evening entertainment. Amazing cultural talents and assets go largely ignored by our city and county officials. The exception is Elgin’s restored Opera House. Performances there draw enthusiastic audiences. Plus it provides outstanding opportunities for developing musical and theatrical talents. Certainly the Opera House benefits the entire county in many ways

Meanwhile La Grande invested in the architectural and financial disaster on the corner of Adams and 4th and the tunnel system across the street. Had that support gone to the nearby Liberty Theater it would have revived both cultural tradition and architecture. Out of town scammers with promises of steam engines and theme park developments have squandered money necessary to promote our unique history, architecture and land.

A number of promising local endeavors would blossom with more community support. Grant Turner’s La Grande Shakespeare Company, Chris Jennings and Friends’ award winning Indie Film Festival and the many dance and musical professionals could flourish rather than struggle to hang on. Union County did provide its venerable old library to house an art center. The activities it supports far exceeds original expectation. Given some initial support things begin to develop beyond imagination.

Walla Walla planted grapes before becoming a hub for wineries. Baker City attracted the Oregon Trail Center and venerates its historic architecture. Pendleton’s rodeo culture is renowned. Eastern Oregon University is now officially Oregon’s Rural University. Thoughtful goal driven action could turn Union County into the Recreational and Cultural Center of Rural Oregon.