My definition of economic development is heavily influenced by my experience as a young city administrator in Oakridge, Oregon, 25 years ago. Soon after I arrived, the town lost its largest employer and many smaller ones in a short period of time, leaving the community with a high unemployment rate, falling property values, and a shortage of hope. I was new enough to my profession to be surprised when people started asking me about what we were going to do.
I had enough education and experience to know the basics of personnel and financial management, but I had no training in what to do when the bottom drops out of the local economy. I did realize that we didn’t have enough jobs or investment, and we needed more of both. We also needed to work together effectively to make anything positive happen.
The state provided our local planning group with a name, technical assistance, and access to a small grant fund. Our Community Response Team did its part by volunteering long hours to do community improvement projects and work on a strategic plan. The whole process helped the town’s leaders not only accomplish some visible projects, but also develop their capacity to work together as a team. The focus of the original plan was to secure industrial lands, promote tourism, and develop local amenities. Significant progress or completion was achieved on all of these priorities within four years of adoption of the strategic plan.
Oakridge’s economy did not suddenly prosper because of the initial response, and it really hasn’t come close to returning to its best times in the 1960s and 1970s. The community has, however, become a national center for mountain biking, and it looks better now than when I moved there in 1988. There has been some population growth, and a number of small businesses have started in the past few years.
Economic development is a continuing effort to better a place by attracting new investment and creating jobs while maintaining or enhancing all the good qualities that make a community a nice place to live. Sometimes it may involve relaxing rules that inhibit growth, while in other cases it may require increased protection of a unique resource. Economic development is not possible, in my opinion, in a place where people are unwilling to put in the effort and take the necessary risks to make their community an attractive place to live and do business.
Our Economic Development Director, Kate Porsche, and I attended a forum sponsored by Business Oregon (formerly the Oregon Economic Development Department) last week; and I heard many of the same issues expressed by business and government leaders that we discussed 25 years ago. I suspect people will be talking about them 25 years from now.
Albany has a great opportunity to work together as a community to do real economic development by supporting local residents and businesses by offering unique workforce training in cooperation with Linn-Benton Community College. The Council is considering a proposal from the community’s largest employers that at the very least is bringing people together in the same way that earlier generations worked to produce much of the prosperity we enjoy today.