What is Economic Development?

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.

Election Season

I am still awaiting word from the Secretary of State’s office about whether or not my fine for allegedly violating election laws late last year will be upheld.  My alleged offense was a failure to include in a news release the cost to the taxpayer of a proposed bond to build new public safety facilities.

The news release did contain the cost of the measure ($20.3 million), but it did not express it as a rate per thousand dollars of assessed value.  I might add that the rate is at best an estimate and would not even apply to some taxpayers.

I am not terribly concerned about the $75 fine if the citation is eventually upheld.  I think the Secretary of State’s office was acknowledging that this was a pretty trivial offense, if it was an offense at all, by imposing a fine that is about three percent of the maximum specified by the statute.  While I am not concerned about the fine, I am very troubled by a law that makes it difficult to determine whether or not a violation has occurred.  The consequence of this uncertainty is that those who may be in the best position to explain an issue and who the public will likely ask for information will be unwilling to risk sanctions by saying anything.

The City of Albany was very conscious of the Secretary of State’s administrative rules that implement state electioneering laws, and we even sent a team that included our mayor, city attorney, public information officer, and economic development director to meet with the Secretary of State last year in an attempt to better understand how the rules would be applied.  Despite this conversation and multiple readings of the 23-page manual that implements ORS 260.432, we still managed to run afoul of those who administer the law.  It appears that the only “safe harbor” is to submit any statement regarding anything that is scheduled to appear on a ballot to the Secretary of State’s office for prior review.  The news release that triggered the fine described a council decision to create a citizens’ advisory group and only incidentally mentioned the ballot measure.

The advice I will be following as the election season approaches is to essentially say nothing about anything that will be on the ballot.  We know, for example, that a measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana has apparently qualified to be on the November ballot.  Any thoughts I might have about how such a measure will affect the City, I will need to keep to myself.  Unlike most public employees, city managers are deemed to be on the job most of the time.  I do not believe the law or the way it is being interpreted is constitutional, but I will do my best to observe it until it is changed.  My advice for all public employees is to do the same and limit any statements or opinions regarding ballot measures to times when there is no doubt that the employee is off duty.  Additionally, no public resources such as computers, e-mail accounts, etc., should be used when making any comment about a ballot measure.  Even responding to citizen inquiries should be treated with caution.

There are people who are eager to make public employees look bad by catching them violating the law.  I have had three complaints filed with the Secretary of State’s office in this spirit by some local citizens, so the threat is not abstract.  I am hopeful that my case will provide some clarification that will allow for a more informed discussion of important public issues.