Workers in rural Oregon describe their love of place, limited job opportunities and the potential for economic revitalization.
Downtown Gaston is easy to miss.
The shabby grocery, cafe, two bars and barber shop that line western Washington County’s Highway 47 don’t invite lingering. But deputy Robert Wormington calls the city home. The 38-year-old grew up a few miles from downtown and never strayed far.
Sitting in the Gaston library, a dark, book-lined room attached to a store front City Hall, Wormington remembers helping build the space out as a Boy Scout. “The room may not be super fancy, but it works,” he says.
Since graduating high school, Wormington has managed a fast-food restaurant and worked several construction jobs. He applied to the sheriff’s office in 2009, enticed by the promise of a steady paycheck and good insurance benefits.
Today he’s the only officer in Gaston, population 663, getting the job after the preceding deputy retired. He owns a home with his wife, who sells insulation, and two kids, and he is adamant about saving for retirement.
Wormington knows he’s a local outlier. Stimson Lumber, whose mill was built in 1933, is a major employer with all shifts up and running. But still, he calls Gaston a “low income city with lots of people on welfare.”
Life in remote parts of the state has never been easy, even in the best of times. After all, resource-extraction jobs — the backbone of rural Oregon’s economy — are physically demanding. But they paid a living wage to generations of residents.
If the downturn of the 1980s made things tough, the Great Recession and housing crisis of 2007 made it nearly impossible. Jobs, particularly in the wood-product manufacturing sector, dried up. And while Portland, Salem and the state’s other urban centers have recovered, with employment numbers surging past national averages, rural Oregon still lags.
The result is a state sharply divided economically, geographically and politically. Donald Trump won bigly outside Oregon’s urban corridor, bolstered by the promise to bring back jobs. Maybe he’ll deliver, maybe not, but his surprise victory has trained a spotlight on the divide.
Wormington’s connection to his roots holds strong despite the difficulties of rural living. He’s crafted a life and career against tough odds, and bristles at the idea of moving to Hillsboro, Beaverton or Portland.
He’s not alone.
For this look at the rural workforce, Oregon Business spoke to seven people living in different corners of the state. Their stories and circumstances vary; some are doing well, others just holding on. One is ready to pack it in. But all agree: Loving rural roots is not enough to sustain or build an economy.
The challenges facing Oregon’s rural areas are diverse. Even defining the subject and the geographical boundaries is complicated.
“There is no one ‘rural worker’ or one ‘rural community,’” says Heidi Khokhar, executive director of RDI, a nonprofit devoted to rural development.
Only about 657,000 people are thinly spread throughout small town Oregon. Their burgs are virtual islands of development surrounded by forests, mountains, rangeland and farms. Accordingly, their fortunes vary. “What’s happening in Estacada is different than what’s happening in Josephine County,” says Khokhar.
Despite being far-flung, rural communities have some striking similarities. The public sector remains a critical employer, with government work providing just under 25% of jobs.
The steady paycheck brings solid financial footing to Stacie Rothwell, 43 and husband Sean, 45, of Hines. Natives of a town whose economy was dominated by the Hines Lumber Mill, they both left after high school only to come home a few years later, re-meet and marry.
Financially, the couple is “comfortable,” according to Stacie, and on track to retire early. They’re almost done paying the $235,000 mortgage on their 3,000-square-foot home and own some investment property as well.
They are also an exception. Stacie speculates that 50% of her neighbors live paycheck to paycheck. Sean guesses that number is higher. The disparity causes friction.
“Some people give you the eye when you work for the government,” Sean says. He has noticed an uptick in hostility since last year’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 35 miles southeast, but shrugs it off. “I don’t agree with everything the government does, but it pays the bills.”
When asked what state or federal officials could do to improve Hines’ situation, neither Sean nor Stacie had specific ideas but said they hoped Gov. Kate Brown would do more to entice industry to come — and stay — in town.
Bringing in a single, large employer may sound attractive, but “it can leave you vulnerable,” says Nancy Straw, community economic development director at the Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg. The Rothwells saw that vulnerability firsthand when two different companies took over the Hines Mill for a few years, boosted employment and left when the tax incentive ran out.
“They took the railroad tracks with them,” Stacie says.
Even the server farms put in by huge players like Facebook or Google don’t really pay off for the locals. “Those facilities don’t have a lot of jobs to start with, and very little for the local population,” Straw says.
Instead, the Ford Family Foundation is pushing for economic diversity. Today more than 40% of rural jobs are concentrated in natural resource extraction, tourism and government work according to Oregon’s Employment Department, compared to 27% in urban areas. This lack of diversification makes bouncing back from economic disruption — think housing bubble — that much harder.
There are some new, smaller, natural resource extraction industries that promise to add rural resiliency. Straw points to small-diameter timber harvest for furniture making and biomass, geothermal and solar energy production. She also sees a need for truck drivers, welders and allied health workers like medical coders.
Jobs like this require training. The Ford Family Foundation is facilitating partnerships between schools and business to create a pipeline of workers. That’s promising for the K-12 set, but the bulk of rural Oregon’s workforce is old, and getting older, growing twice as fast as other populations.
“The joke in rural Oregon is our No. 1 export is our youth,” says Anne Kubisch, president of the Ford Family Foundation.
What does training mean for these graying citizens?
“Older workers will have to retrain or patch together a living,” Straw answers.
George Fowler, 66, had no time for training when he left his job. He worked at Newport’s Georgia-Pacific paper mill for 37 years, raising three kids with his stay-at-home wife, Linda, before taking an early-retirement buyout. He was motivated by the promise of keeping his health insurance.
“I knew we weren’t financially set up for retirement when I took the deal, but I didn’t want to lose our coverage,” he says. So Fowler, who started at GP as a laborer and on-the-job-trained his way up to millwright, kept on working.
Since “retiring” 11 years ago, he’s been a contractor back at GP, a maintenance/production worker for a maraschino cherry plant and unemployed. He’s watched his insurance payments go up from $660 a month to $1,400 — nearly three times his mortgage.
Today he’s a security guard at Newport’s NOAA shipyard with no plans to stop working anytime soon.
Conversely, job training saved John Toth, an automotive technician in Grants Pass. As a youth, the now 36-year-old moved around a lot, getting into trouble with drugs before cleaning up and settling in the Rogue Valley.
He took a $9.50-an-hour telemarketing job while going to Rogue Community College for automotive technology. Roe Motors offered Toth a paid internship before he graduated, based on his extensive — but uncertified — knowledge, raising his hourly pay to $12.
“I was about to get married, and it made it easier knowing I would have a full-time job ready to go after I graduated,” he remembers.
Today Toth makes $21 an hour and pays a mortgage, but things are still tight. He and his wife, who works at an assisted-living center, have three kids ages 5 to 10. Health insurance and childcare are their major financial stressors. “Summer is not a fun time,” he says.
When asked how the government can help the region, Tosh voiced strong opposition to any policy that would raise minimum wage.
“People complain about low wages, politicians hear them and the price of everything goes up,” he says referencing a $200-a-month increase in his childcare expenses. “Those jobs are for high school kids. and now people are making a career out of them.”
For his own career, Toth hopes to advance to shop foreman at Roe Motors, a job that comes with a pay increase and bonuses. He’ll have to wait. The position is currently held by someone in their 50s.
For his part, Fowler would like to see more businesses opportunities come to Newport. He’s thankful for the tourism jobs — hotels and restaurant work — but acknowledges that they're seasonal and low paying. Medium-size companies can be lured in and just as easily lured away. Fowler stopped working at the maraschino cherry plant because it relocated operations to Salem. It’s an all-too-common story.
Khokhar tells of a hard-won call center moving from Baker County to Salem and taking 54 jobs with it.
“What’s the cost/benefit analysis of that?” she asks, clearly exasperated. “I wish that the state government knew what it means to move 54 jobs out of Baker County to Salem.”
Viticulture has played a strong role in diversifying and enriching rural Oregon’s economy. The sum of all economic activity related directly or indirectly to wine topped $3.35 billion in 2013 according to Berkeley, Calif.-based Full Glass Research. That includes $207.5 million in wine-related tourism.
“Oh yes wine,” laughs Ford Family Foundation’s Straw. “Wine will save us all!”
Can legal weed follow suit? Possibly, if citizens get on board. Many rural jurisdictions continue to reject the economic potential of legal marijauna. Wormington tells of an empty feed store in downtown Gaston that almost became a grow operation, “It was voted down by six votes,” he says.
But legal cannabis changed the fortune of David Nisbet, 55, of South Beach. A jeweler and bronze foundry worker, Nisbet found himself unemployed after putting in 10 unhappy years as a welder.
He found work at The Glass Hive, a small, glass kiln manufacturer. They’ve experienced a surge in orders as glassblowers struggle to supply dispensaries with pipes and bongs. Nisbet is Glass Hive employee number three, and the family atmosphere suits his personality well.
“We start when we want, take a break when we want, my boss buys pizza for lunch all the time,” he says. “It’s what I need.”
“We have fishing, tourism, a little bit of logging and not much else,” says Nisbet about Gold Beach and Newport’s job base.
Cannabis couldn’t save Lisa Freedlund-Buechler’s small nursery. She moved from Phoenix, Ariz., 30 years ago and bought five hilltop acres in Cornelius in 1998.
She, her husband and two children lived in a trailer on the property for 10 years, while she grew ornamental grasses for larger nurseries like Monrovia. At the height of Freedlund-Buechler’s operation, she employed seven full-time workers, moving 30,000 to 40,000 plants at a time.
Feeling secure, Freedlund-Buechler built a house in 2007. She got the keys just as customers were calling to cancel their orders. The 58-year-old struggled for years before shutting down operations in 2016.
“I tried to market the property to cannabis growers, but there’s a mortgage on the house so it won’t work,” she says.
Once her property sells, Freedlund-Buechler, now divorced, will move closer to Portland. The situation makes her wistful. “The nursery business is coming back but not for me.”
Wormington, on the other hand, feels bullish about Gaston’s future. He points to a possible link to the Yamhill county trail system and a nearby metro project, Chehalem Ridge Natural Area, to bring in tourists.
For inspiration, he looks to the nearby town of Carlton. “They don’t want another mill,” he says of the city known for bike riding, white-tablecloth restaurants and wine tasting. “Carlton’s got it figured out.”
Other rural areas have it figured out too. Places like Bend and Hood River have thrived on tourist dollars to become vibrant metro areas in their own right. Counties along major infrastructure corridors I-5, I-84 and the Columbia River have recovered most or all of lost jobs.
As for the rest of rural Oregon, well, they’re trying. There can’t be just one employer, one industry or one solution. But a little opportunity can go a long way.
“I don’t want to be rich,” says Gold Beach’s Nisbet. “I just don’t ever want to leave.”