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Jobs Watch: Down to the wire in Roseburg

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

For years, it has been a point of pride within Roseburg’s business community to raise $100,000 through the annual duck race to fight child abuse in the community. This year was no different, except of course this year IS different if you’re talking money.

Normally the duck race fundraiser goes right down to the wire and Roseburg’s civic boosters are called on to dig out the final 10% during the final days. But this year they weren’t even close — only $56,000 had been raised, with one week left.

Enter Neil Hummel, who has been in the real estate business in Douglas County for 36 years. He got out his Rolodex and got to work, and by the end of the week the goal was reached.

It’s a small victory in the big scheme of things, but the people of Douglas County will take their victories where they can get them. Unemployment was 15.5% here in July, the highest rate in western Oregon. On the bright side, that number has been falling steadily since April; on the not-so-bright side, it’s the highest July jobless rate Douglas County has faced since the state started tracking it monthly by county. The timber industry has been hammered by the collapse of the housing market, and two boat manufacturers that employed hundreds of people have shut down their local operations.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been living off of unemployment,” says Hummel. “But this is a very resilient community.”

Hummel moved to Douglas County not long after returning to Oregon from the war in Vietnam. He’s got photos on his office wall that show him as a baby-faced 18-year-old Marine in Da Nang, flashing the wide smile that has served him well in the home-selling business. He says he’s been seeing signs of improvement in the marketplace, but the recovery will only get you so far without new jobs to replace the ones that have been lost.

The Veteran’s Affairs hospital is planing to expand its sizable operation in Roseburg, local subcontractors are fixing up roads and bridges all over Douglas County and Costco is promising to invest $25-$35 million to build a new superstore east of the airport. But Hummel knows it will take more than construction projects to get things rolling again.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to encourage the small business person to expand, and to help our entrepreneurs get started,” he says. “With all the downsizing there is a tremendous amount of talent out there that's avaialable. That’s who we should be focused on, instead of bringing businesses in from out of town that just turn around and leave after a few years.”

He’s referring to Dell, the computer giant that took advantage of all sorts of incentives only to bolt after just five years in Roseburg. That deal left an understandably sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people, and it must be said that take-the-tax-breaks-and-run is not an uncommon outcome.

At the same time, based on what I’m hearing around here, this isn’t an either/or situation. Getting Douglas County’s economy back on track isn’t just a matter of supporting small business and entrepreneurs, or jump-starting the housing market, or luring promising new businesses to town to put vacant lots to productive use.

It’s a matter of all of the above — and then some.

Ben Jacklet is the managing editor of Oregon Business. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/benjacklet.

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