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|Wednesday, September 09, 2009|
Something was burning in Burns, and it smelled awful. Turns out the town dump was on fire: Black smoke was spewing forth from a privately operated landfill loaded with treated wood, plastics and fiberglass from the RV manufacturing plant.
This was the last thing I wanted to breathe in on a sweet morning last Thurdsay in Harney County, where fewer than 8,000 people populate 10,000 square miles of high desert and pine forest. You expect dust storms, sagebrush, weather-beaten pickup trucks, barbed wire, dried up lakes, bullet holes in the road signs. But burning fiberglass?
The locals weren’t too happy about it, either. The smell served as an acrid reminder of the latest industry to leave town. Bankrupt Monaco Coach, which employed 6,500 people as recently as 2006, was in the last stages of shutting down its local operation, with its final day of operations set for Friday. The closure of the Monaco plant leaves Harney County with basically no manufacturing jobs. That’s a harsh reality to accept in a town that once had one of the busiest lumber mills in the world.
Diversifying into RVs was a popular tactic for Oregon communities hit hard by the loss of timber jobs in the '80s and '90s. It worked for a while, but high gas prices followed by economic collapse have devastated the RV industry over the past year, and those jobs may be permanently lost. Harney County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in July was 17.5%, an improvement from 18.9% in June but likely to rise again because of the loss of the Monaco plant.
That loss is particularly galling to County Judge Steve Grasty because he knows a group of former Monaco employees who would like nothing better than to get to work building crash parts at the now vacant industrial park. They have the skills and the tools; capital is a different matter. It would be a far smaller operation than the 140 jobs Monaco supported at its peak, but it would be jobs nonetheless. Grasty has also heard from a fiberglass manufacturing company that would be interested in moving to town to take advantage of the skilled and recently displaced workforce. But both deals are stuck in the muck of bankruptcy. Harney County is far from the top of the list of priorities for the creditors fighting for scraps from Monaco Coach.
That’s just one reason why the county is on the verge of buying the sprawling former Louisiana Pacific mill near the closed RV plant. Grasty says he’s not a big fan of publicly owned industrial land and he actually agrees with the critics who say his county’s percentage of government jobs is too high at 56%. But he argues that the problem is not too many jobs in the public sector but rather too few in the private sector. If the LP deal goes through he plans to parcel out affordable portions to renters as well as free incubator spaces for would-be start-ups. “We will chase everything,” he vowed as he showed me around an industrial park filled with awesome structures no longer in use.
Fortunately for Burns, the vacancies plaguing its industrial zone have not spread into downtown. The town center has held onto its Western charm thanks to the support of the surrounding ranching community, a steady trickle of traffic and the determined efforts of independent local businesses such as Grandma’s Cedar Chest, Chris’s Barber Shop, The Children’s Barn and the Tumbleweed Floral and Paper Company. The Burns Times Herald is alive and well. There are three farm dealerships, three auto parts store, a new clothing shop and several lively cafes. Businesses are fixing up their storefronts and planning expansions. Retail vacancies are the exception rather than the rule. Jan Oswald, the energetic proprietor of Gourmet and Gadgets, says business has been hopping all summer long. “I carry the products people need,” she told me. “Ranching people do a lot of cooking, and they have been very supportive of my business.”
The ranching community also kept Fran Davis’s deli and catering business afloat during the roughest winter she’s experienced. She said she nearly had to shut her deli down in the spring before local support pulled her through. Exhausted from feeding 125 people at her bed and breakfast the night before, she told me, “People here work very hard and they are willing to do those three or four jobs that it takes to make a living. We do what it takes and we help each other out.”
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