Dr. Bill Watkins, executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University, was in town last week to provide a Central Oregon forecast for the first quarter 2010. Dr. Watkins has provided forecasts for our region in the past: and the news hasn’t looked good.
And last week’s forecast left little surprises with barely a hint of optimism. Even as we begin to see some recovery, Watkins predicted the improvement in our local economy will be slow in every area from construction jobs to retail sales. At the same time we are getting more bad news that the state has a nearly $600 million budget deficit and huge cuts will need to be made in government and educational services.
Despite record unemployment, the current legislature increased new government spending by over $8 billion while doing nothing to address the state’s escalating pension and benefits costs. Central Oregon will continue to suffer from an ineffective state government that presently seems bent on stifling jobs and economic growth.
The April employment situation as summed up for us by the state’s Regional Economist Carolyn Eagan shows that the unemployment rates increased in all three Central Oregon counties. In Crook the unemployment rate was an alarming 16.6 percent in April, up 1.1 percentage points from March’s rate of 15.5 percent.
Deschutes County fared no better with unemployment climbing nearly 1 percent over the month to reach 14.1 percent in April. Jefferson County was 13.7 percent in April; up 0.8 percent from March’s rate of 12.9 percent.
This economic data compels us to ask if we are doing enough to improve our regional economy. Obviously a wait and see attitude coupled with Central Oregonians’ optimistic view that this is such a great place to live ‘what business wouldn’t want to come here?’ — might not be working.
Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) is the leading force behind diversifying our regional economy by attracting new investment and jobs. On many fronts the organization has done a stellar job of recruiting new companies (Facebook) and by helping traded-sector firms already in Central Oregon expand (PV Powered, Earth20, Breedlove Guitars).
However, EDCO, like other economic entities are hampered by ill-advised tax measures, government inefficiencies (Oregon Department of Transportation to effectively block projects if they deem contributions to infrastructure insufficient, and the land use process, including state bodies such as the Land Conservation and Development Commission) and unfriendly business practices at the local level (increased building fees).
The frustration with our struggling economy has given rise to a grassroots group of local business people who, according to their brochure, seek an objective, coherent vision for the economic future of Deschutes County – a vision which builds on our regional strengths, but provides greater economic stability for sustainable growth. The group is called the Deschutes Economic Alliance, spearheaded by local realtor, Lawnae Hunter of Hunter Properties. Jim Clinton from the City of Bend, Tom Van Hemelryck of Premiere West Bank and Steve McDonald of Deschutes County Title are a few of the other advisory board members.
Deschutes Economic Alliance plans to raise $70,000 and hire Dr. Bill Watkins, Dr. Delore Zimmerman Ph.D and Joel Kotkin of the Praxis Strategy Group to develop an “objective, coherent vision for the economic future of Deschutes County.” The trio comes with a long list of credentials that have created successful innovation and technology-based economies in other communities. (See page 11 for more information about the Alliance.)
One might now ask: does Central Oregon need both a Deschutes Economic Alliance and an EDCO? Are we duplicating efforts and/or depleting resources that could be used for economic recruitment/marketing efforts?
EDCO staff has not commented on the Alliance’s effort. However, Hunter believes that the new group will provide a common vision and collaborative framework for the economic future of Deschutes County. EDCO, on the other hand, is “the feet on the ground strategy of meeting with a defined scope of clients interested in coming to Central Oregon or expanding their business in Central Oregon.”
The Alliance would be a larger umbrella of economic development that includes all areas of business and industry as well as tourism and culture activities. It plans to provide a vision that would support the work that EDCO does along with other economic entities such as the Central Oregon Film Alliance and the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
We think collaboration is in order here. In order to prosper Central Oregon must be thoughtful, diligent and forthright in improving its economic potential. PHA