Thursday, November 01, 2007
One thing became clear to me while standing in a former lumber mill on the outskirts of Burns a few weeks ago on a cold, bright day, learning about a new business that had taken up residence there.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s also reinvention’s midwife.
Few counties in Oregon are struggling with the loss of an old economy (in this case, timber) as much as Harney County, and the zeolite plant is as good an example as any of a new industry growing, literally, on top of an old one. The zeolite plant, operated by ZeoCorp, is housed in the old Hines lumber mill site. An unlikely phoenix, but a rebirth nonetheless. Out of the ashes of timber a mineral business has risen, bringing new jobs with it.
Few people I’ve met are as clear-eyed about the challenges facing Harney County as Steve Grasty, the county judge. As Grasty and I walked through the plant, he talked about his frustration with a failed state data archive center that could have brought a high-tech hub to the area, in addition to the ongoing need to find an economic path out of the timber decline. The county, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, recently lost dozens of jobs when the Louisiana-Pacific mill in Hines closed. As Grasty earlier told me, “Our future is somewhere between doing nothing, and doing what we used to do.” But what will that be?
Maybe the answer is in something like zeolite, a volcanic ash found in large quantities in Hines that’s used in products from livestock feed to cat litter. Maybe it’s in going organic, like Harney County rancher Louie Molt with his alfalfa and natural beef operation. Maybe it is in something yet to be created or even imagined. As we witnessed in our travels around Oregon in September on the Business is Good tour, the same questions exist in rural towns, coastal communities and inland cities.
In this issue, we drew upon what we found on the road and in other travels to gauge where the state’s economy is headed. Three themes emerged in places large and small: New economies are taking root where others have faded; many main streets are under construction and thriving; and the green dream is getting stronger as businesses and governments give sustainable practices more than just lip service.
But there still are many communities and businesses in every corner that are not thriving, where there are just as many challenges that have yet to meet a solution as success stories. So our coverage of the innovation that will help drive the state’s transformation won’t end here because these themes are only part of the story, and Oregon is still in the middle of its metamorphosis.
And it will be the smart, dedicated people who live and work in every one of those corners who will, along with necessity, be the midwives for Oregon’s future.