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Hood River economy holds steady

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

hoodriver.jpg Hood River has seen dozens of new businesses open and the county has the third-lowest jobless rate.

HOOD RIVER The recent closings of five Hood River businesses, including the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel, has created concern about the town’s overall economy. Yes, the hotel is in trouble and several businesses — Hood River Chrysler Jeep Dodge, Hood River Ford Mercury, Abruzzo Italian Grill, and the Panzanella bakery — have shut down. But local business officials say that the city of around 7,000, which relies heavily on its agriculture, sports recreation and tourism industries, is doing fine.

The weakened economy hasn’t deterred local entrepreneurs from bringing a variety of new businesses to the area. Over the past year, Hood River has seen the addition of 29 businesses, most of which center around the town’s tourism industry, says the local chamber. New businesses include several restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, a museum and a salon. And the county has the third-lowest unemployment in the state at 6.6%.

“Business has slowed,” says Stu Watson, coordinator for the Hood River Downtown Business Association. “But we are optimistic that in this economy, there are still people with steady incomes that are going to want to vacation, dine out and shop here.”

During the winter months, the town’s economy depends mainly on tourists drawn to the area by Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort. Although hazardous winter weather conditions limited early-winter travel, the area saw business increase during January, says Greg Colt, president of the business group. Bill Fashing, the county’s economic development coordinator, adds that there is no indication that the bottom of the tourism market has fallen out.   

“In a town this size, you know almost everyone. But when I go out to a restaurant or a coffee shop, I’m still seeing quite a few faces I don’t recognize,” says Colt. “When I stop seeing those faces, then I’ll worry.”

Fashing also notes that there are a number of other business sectors that are doing well, and have not yet faced major layoffs. Although based across the river in Bingen, Wash., unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer Insitu has boosted the town’s economy.  

But Fashing warns that while business in the area is holding steady and unemployment is fairly low, that could change quickly as consumer spending patterns change.

“Any industry that depends on the leisure discretionary dollar is struggling,” says Watson. “Businesses need to look long and hard at staffing and cost factors, and adjust to changing times. If they don’t, they might not survive.”      

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