Norm Cimon

Union County Progressives/Democrats

A few years ago, Urban Renewal Agency funds helped develop both the underground and above ground portions of the La Grande Marketplace. URA money then went across the street where it was hoped a grocery store could anchor the corner of Adams Avenue across from La Grande City Hall. I remember sitting down to breakfast with my wife Shelley, and wondering whether the URA was doing due diligence.

Selling groceries is about as tough as it gets. When Walmart got into the business years back, it got even more tough. You have to be price competitive, or have a very different line of product that separates you from the other grocers. That’s the key to success and that didn’t happen. That corner is largely empty again because the business plan for Market Place Family Foods was weak.

Revitalizing portions of the downtown area that need it is important, but there has to be a clear vision backing up public funding, informed by the borrower’s business plan, by the market forces at play, and by the kind of oversight that a large loan requires. None of that is easy. Risk is part of the process, and so is transparency, something others in the community have pointed out in The Observer.

Keep everything above board, and minimize risk through the use of data, such as that provided by the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District. Union County is part of NEODD and in October of last year, at a session hosted by the county, director Christine Jarski pointed out that “97 percent of a rural community’s economic development comes from within.” That’s the starting point for serious discussion about economic development.

The towns and the county should have a clear idea of where we live and who we are and fund projects accordingly.

The area is spectacular. We are surrounded by wilderness, and by canyons with fast-flowing waters that keep hikers, hunters, horseback riders, fishermen, and river runners busy in the best of ways, even as they shovel money into our cities and towns. Give them more places to spend that money.

We have a thriving agricultural community. We have entrepreneurs who haven’t been afraid to start their own businesses, people who’ve succeeded because of that spirit and through the support they’ve received from tax breaks and public infrastructure.

We have a thriving regional medical center, and an arts community that needs to be acknowledged. We are also a university town, which we haven’t taken advantage of nearly enough.

There’s a deep bench of professionals from federal and state agencies, scientists, engineers, geographic information system professionals, information technology specialists, fire professionals, and more, people who farm out their expertise in dozens of ways and in many different places.

Best of all, we have a hard-working work force that can take advantage of the changes on the horizon. The coming years will see a revolution in the way energy is generated, stored and transmitted, one that will turn consumers into producers. There will be lots of jobs to go with that change.

Remote sensing is a part of the revolution. The Grande Ronde Model Watershed uses drones to examine the effects of projects on hard-to-get-to upstream stretches of the rivers it rehabilitates. A good friend who thinks a lot about these changes is willing to support a learning center that would provide hands-on experience for young people, something to help future-proof them, a place where they learn about drones, 3-D printers and more.

The best professional sports franchises have long known that building a winner isn’t about looking at what players can’t do, but leveraging what they can for the good of the team. The “problem” of economic development can become the solution provided by the community itself. In the words of director Jarski: “We have so much talent in our community… they just need some help.”

It’s time to recognize that talent and give them a hand.