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Old questions return to leadership gathering

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Articles - December 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
1210_ATS01When it staged its first leadership summit in 2002, the Oregon Business Council faced an incoming governor, high unemployment, a sluggish economy and a state budget shortfall of nearly $2 billion.

Eight years later, with OBC gearing up for its seventh annual summit on Dec. 13, the setting feels familiar. A new (sort of) governor is on his way into office, the state’s unemployment rate that hit 7% in 2002 is now above 10%, and the coming biennium has a projected $3.2 billion shortfall.

“This summit feels to me a lot like the first one,” says Duncan Wyse, president of OBC. “We have a new governor and we are still, as we were then, in a very deep hole that we’ve got to find our way out of.”

1210_ATS02The summit, held at the Oregon Convention Center, caps off a months-long tour that OBC made around the state for a series of 13 regional meetings. Held in places like Astoria, Baker City, Pendleton and Medford, the meetings brought together business leaders to talk about their regional concerns as well as how the summit and the accompanying Oregon Business Plan might tackle the tough issues facing the entire state.

“I think it was really important that they came out and got the rural perspective,” says Mike Nelson, a realtor in Baker City and vice chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission. “We wanted to let folks over on the west side know how important their economy is to us — and how important ours is to them.”

Like Oregon’s latest recession and high unemployment, some of the big issues facing the state now are the same  from eight years ago: underfunding of higher ed, a volatile state funding system, low revenues, and high income and capital gains taxes. And, like the 2002 summit, this year’s version has a framework in place for addressing some of the challenges. Broadly, it includes job creation strategies, restructuring and reallocating the state budget, lowering some taxes, and possibly raising or redesigning some select others.

1210_ATS03“The solution to what we’re currently facing is not one that pits the business community against the providers of public services,” says Pat Reiten, chair of the Oregon Business Plan steering committee and president of Pacific Power.

The summit will also address Oregon’s clusters — high tech, natural resources, manufacturing and others — and key areas like health care, transportation and sustainability. The summit and the plan will also retain their primary focus on the traded sector, which Wyse notes is responsible for driving the Oregon economy. Craig Smith, executive director of the Eugene nonprofit Rural Development Initiatives, however, thinks that there should be more room in the plan for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

“That’s what we believe is the backbone of Oregon,” says Smith. “Most jobs created are by small and new businesses.’’

A year ago, summit organizers pulled the plug on the 2009 event in part because of the two tax measures passed by voters — and pushed for by Gov. Ted Kulongoski and other state leaders — and a palpable rift between business and government. Reiten says it was unfortunate, but the right decision. The downtime gave OBC the chance to reflect and regroup.

“The business plan won’t be successful unless we have a unified front in attempting to implement its provisions,” he says. “And it’s not one and done at the summit. We’ll be pressing through the upcoming legislative session and beyond.”


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