A harder road ahead for rural Oregon

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

IT ISN’T DEBATABLE anymore that the economy is in a heap. Call it what you will, recession or not, but credit is drying up, jobs are disappearing, banks are faltering and housing prices are dropping. (Yes, Oregon is a holdout but, really, for how much longer?) Throw in rising food and gas prices just for good measure.

What also is not debatable is that rural Oregon will suffer the most because bad times hit rural areas hardest; with their already high unemployment, high poverty rates and low incomes, there aren’t a lot of layers between them and the bitter winds of a downturn.

s_Robin ROBIN DOUSSARD

In the decades since rural Oregon lost natural resources as an economic base, its citizens and leaders have struggled to find a replacement. No one I’ve met in rural Oregon thinks they are going to get an answer handed to them.

Across the state, I’ve seen towns trying everything they can think of to diversify their job base and help create prosperity: wind farms, high-tech hideouts for city refugees, tourism, natural beef, mining zeolite, staging Shakespearean plays. You name it, it’s out there. The small towns are rich in innovation, if not in number of jobs.

Some even thought that putting a correctional facility in their town would help. As associate editor Ben Jacklet reports in this issue (see Prisontown myth, page 30), prisons are not a magic solution for a struggling community. Painfully for some towns, they are worse off than before.

Now the Office of Rural Policy is shuttered just a few years after the governor created it (see story, page 10). Retired Gilliam County judge Laura Pryor told me last year when she was in Salem fighting for the office that she didn’t believe that people set out to “murder” rural Oregon, but the law of unintended consequences might end up committing the crime.

Ray Naff, with the governor’s economic revitalization team, vows to keep the work of the office going, seeing success in building a few jobs here and there, and not giving up. “There is no single answer,” he says, “but if you take your eye off the ball, you’re gone.”

Ways and Means Committee co-chair Rep. Mary Nolan, a Democrat from Portland, says the office had effectively raised the awareness of rural issues and wasn’t necessary anymore, so her committee killed it. “It might have been different in a different revenue picture,” she says.

In a different revenue picture, rural Oregon might not have needed the office as much.

There will be many chances to test Nolan’s assertion and Pryor’s fears as Oregon struggles with the downturn. There are serious issues facing the state, with lots of special interests clamoring for attention, and rural voices — few and far between — are hard to hear. Will rural Oregon find it has champions or unwitting executioners?

Like the man says, take your eye off the ball, and you’re gone.

 

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