BY LINDA BAKER
Above: Corvallis has a relatively healthy downtown, with a retail vacancy rate of less than 1%.
Below: A rendering of Austin Hall, future home of the Oregon State University College of Business. It will open in 2014. OSU is one of only two major employers in Corvallis that is growing.
Fueled by the twin public and private sector engines — Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard — Corvallis has been in a golden economic spot for most of the past three decades. But in recent years, the recession, coupled with steady job cuts at HP’s local campus, has tarnished a city ranked as the most innovative in the country. Today, Corvallis suffers from stagnant wage and job growth, a lack of economic diversity and a steep decline in the manufacturing sector, according to an economic development report released in late 2011.
“We were in a very privileged situation and frankly didn’t have to try very hard,” says Elizabeth French, a vice president at engineering and construction firm CH2M HILL and chair of the Corvallis Economic Development Commission, a 9-member committee formed last year to address the city’s economic challenges. “We had HP here, a stable employer with great benefits that employed thousands of people. But we put too many eggs in one basket.”
To help diversify the local economy, the city council in January approved an ambitious economic development plan that would make business a priority of city government. That plan is not the only significant new initiative adopted by the city over the past year. Last summer, the council also signed a memorandum of understanding with OSU — the first in city history — aimed at addressing short- and long-term issues triggered by growth at the university, where enrollment has increased from about 19,300 in 2006 to 25,000 today.
Collectively, these efforts underscore a few of the fiscal and livability challenges facing Corvallis, as well as the potential for the city to capitalize on its assets to resolve those challenges.
Blessed with riverfront parks, a popular library and a relatively healthy downtown, Corvallis also has one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates — 6% — and one of the highest percentages of PhDs in the workforce of any U.S. metro area. Despite these strengths, some key economic indicators are lagging. At its peak, Hewlett-Packard employed 7,000 workers; that number has now fallen to about 2,200. Corvallis ranked 310 out of 365 metropolitan statistical areas in percent of income growth between 2009 and 2010. Public school enrollment is declining and only two major employers are growing: OSU and Good Sam Medical Center, which employs about 1,700 people.