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Jobs Watch: Prineville pines for opportunity

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
At the corner of Olde Iron Street and Northwest Harwood in Prineville, in front of a not-quite-finished housing development, there’s a big sign that reads, “Community First Bank: Re-investing 100% of our local deposits back in Central Oregon. That’s what a REAL community bank does.”

Unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work out real well for Community First, which was seized by regulators in Prineville on Aug. 8. Growth in Central Oregon has been a good bet for the past decade, but that boom has gone bust, and no community has been hit harder than blue-collar Prineville.

Unemployment in Crook County in July was a seasonally adjusted 18.7%, down from an abysmal 22.4% in June but still the highest in Oregon. In addition to the failure of the local bank, Prineville has suffered the closure of its biggest lumber mill (formerly run by Ochoco Lumber), the loss of the corporate headquarters for the billion-dollar Les Schwab tire empire and the anti-climatic fizzling of several ambitious home-on-the-range residential developments.

All of which means County Judge Mike McCabe has his hands full. McCabe grew up in Prineville in the '50s and '60s, when the town had five major mills and there was serious money in logging. “If you were the son of a timber faller, you could expect a new Camaro at graduation,” he recalls.

Those days are gone. Crook County used to get about $3.2 million per year from logging on federal lands; that’s down to about $100,000. Now McCabe is trying to maintain services on a budget 20% thinner than last year’s, and the federal timber payments meant to compensate for lost timber money are due to run out in 2011. “We’re going to have to get our act together fast,” says McCabe.

That’s not to say that Crook County is crumbling. The parks are well maintained, the streets are smooth, the shops and restaurants are open for business and the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. But this community needs jobs.

With that in mind, McCabe and his colleagues are trying just about everything a rural community in Central Oregon can try, developing a wind farm on a remote swath of land, pursuing public money to develop a freight rail hub, and luring mysterious unnamed tech giants to build server farms on vacant industrial lands. They’re also working to bring in new higher education options by developing an open campus in collaboration with Oregon State University and Central Oregon Community College. Architects are drawing up plans for a new campus at the fairgrounds in Prineville, to offer classes retraining dislocated workers and budding entrepreneurs.

Another big project in the works here involves the old Ochoco Lumber mill site. The company that used to run the mill is restoring the property and the creek that runs through it with the goal of redeveloping it into an open-air, mixed use neighborhood similar to the Old Mill District in Bend. It’s a strategy that has worked wonders in Bend over the past three decades, recent collapse notwithstanding. Whether it will work in Prineville remains to be seen. Bend has made great strides to diversify its economy. Prineville has not. The race isn’t over; it’s just gotten a lot more urgent than locals such as McCabe would like.

Wind turbines, server farms, tourist traps, specialty mills, or any combination of the above would signify a start. Even the garbage business is looking pretty attractive to McCabe, who makes about a million dollars a year for the general fund from the county landfill. He notes begrudgingly that nearby Gilliam County has flooded its coffers with cash since developing the largest trash receptacle in the Northwest. “It’s not pretty,” he shrugs, “but who cares?”

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