ILLUSTRATION BY AMBER TAYLOR
City officials in Roseburg have tried mightily but without much luck to diversify the local economy in a town where the largest employer is still Roseburg Forest Products. But a recent $2.75 million federal grant and an ambitious plan to lure technology startups may change that.
The Roseburg Business Incubator and Data Center, or RBIC, is the brainchild of city manager Eric Swanson and Mark Bilton-Smith, president of Rio Networks, which is owned by the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians. Swanson, Bilton-Smith and other conspirators from the county and community college designed a proposal for the RBIC to be constructed in the old Douglas County Farmers Co-Op, a 25,190-square-foot building in Roseburg’s downtown that has been vacant for years.
The incubator, which will open in the spring, has room for up to 28 businesses that would receive mentoring and exposure to investors. The basement level will house a data center comparable to a Google or Amazon server farm like the ones along the Columbia River. The data center will use a natural cooling system that ventilates underground air to cut down on electricity costs.
Bilton-Smith says the data center will entice Internet providers such as Verizon to build fiber-optic infrastructure to give Roseburg higher Internet speeds — a boon for businesses and residents.
Economic development officials are still sore over the fact that a Dell call center lured by the city suddenly shuttered and moved overseas two years ago, laying off 220 people. Bilton-Smith and city manager Eric Swanson toured business incubators in other cities, including Portland and Corvallis, and designed the RBIC to nurture businesses and entrepreneurs from the beginning, making them loyal to the local community.
But Swanson and Bilton-Smith feel the incubator’s biggest asset is Roseburg itself — its livability, natural beauty and small-town feel, plus easy access to I-5. “Steve Jobs and the Microsoft guys of the future will want to come to a place like Roseburg and live in a place like Roseburg,” Swanson says.
The city also owes a lot to the Cow Creek tribe, which owns the building and received the grant. “We’re all about trying to revitalize downtown Roseburg,” says chairwoman Sue Shaffer.
Bilton-Smith says the incubator already has three prospective “anchor” tenants — established businesses that will rent space until the startups come along. He expects the incubator to be half retail and established businesses in the beginning, with startups gradually filling in the rest of the offices.
Roseburg’s population is about 21,000 and unemployment in Douglas County was 15.9% in October. Based on what he saw at other incubators, Swanson estimates that at least 165 local jobs and $60,000 in outside investment will be generated by businesses that grow up in the incubator. “Of course, one of the businesses could create 5,000 jobs if it was the right thing,” he says.