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Editor's Notes: Lights on in Baker

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Robin Doussard
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If all goes as announced today, the beleaguered Ash Grove Cement plant will lay off 68 of its 116 workers. Most of the employees of the Durkee factory live in Baker County, which has an unemployment rate of 10.4%. That does not include the job losses at Ash Grove, one of the county’s biggest employers that’s faltering because of the recession.

That 10.4% figure (for October) is a little better than the state’s November unemployment rate of 11.1%, which is uncommon for rural counties. But regional economist Jason Yohannan told the Baker City Herald that the Ash Grove layoffs would overshadow four months of steady rates. “I wouldn’t get too upbeat about a couple months of stable unemployment numbers,” he said.

Another story in the Herald had Huntington residents also concerned about the loss of Ash Grove jobs. “Hopefully these layoffs will be temporary. Ash Grove is vital to this community, and to the entire area,” one resident told the Herald. “Those are good-paying, steady jobs with good benefits.”

The long-term fate of the cement factory and its locally coveted jobs is likely even more unsure after an investigation published earlier this week by The Oregonian, which began: “Only one other factory in the country emits more mercury, and no factory can match Ash Grove Cement Co. for polluting with the type of mercury most harmful to people. Yet for nearly 30 years, Ash Grove's plant pumped mercury into the air at will, undetected and unrestrained by state or federal agencies.”

Grim news on many fronts. So when a Baker City businesswoman sent me an email last week about actually adding jobs, I had to check it out.

A story I wrote about the Hotel Condon for the December issue (Lights out at the Hotel Condon) noted that the hotel was closing from November to April. That brought a quick email from Barbara Sidway, owner and operator of the historic Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City. Sidway bought the hotel in 1993 and spent five years bringing it back from near ruin. It is a gorgeous place, and in fairness to Baker City, I must add that the area is also a favorite of mine. (There is room in my wanderlust for all of Eastern Oregon.)

“Had to send you a note after reading the ‘lights out’ piece on the Hotel Condon. Very sobering. It’s tough to bear the responsibilities of stewardship of a historic property, be open and welcoming to the local community and offer the right level of service to guests … Daunting challenge, to be sure. We’re hanging in here though; actually even adding a couple of staff positions. I told [U.S. Rep.] Greg Walden that the other day, and his eyes popped open, and said that was the first job additions he’d been hearing about in his district in some time.”

Sidway is right. Adding even just a few jobs in Baker City is worth noting.

“We’re suffering from the recession like everyone else,” she said when I called her. She added that the hotel’s occupancy rates started to decline in mid-September next year and that this past November’s business is flat from November 2008. But the engaged and hard-charging Sidway, who also chaired the Oregon 150 board, changed the hotel’s restaurant business model to add continuous service in response to the recession, the community and traveling customers. It’s boosted business enough for Sidway to add three new positions (cook and waitstaff), bringing the number of employees to 30.

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Like the Hotel Condon, summers and weekends are strongest, but the Geiser’s winter traffic is still enough to keep it open. Sidway says that they are getting good business from Boise, and from Portlanders heading to Sun Valley.

When I asked Sidway about other good economic news from the county, she was hard pressed for many examples. “There aren’t a lot of bright spots generally,” she says.

But I found a few more green shoots. Cutters Edge, which makes saws for cutting steel and concrete, is constructing a 7,500-square-foot manufacturing facility, an expansion that is expected to double the 17 employees it has in the Elkhorn Industrial Park. And Natural Structures, which makes park, play and athletic equipment, is purchasing land adjacent to its current facility to expand, which is expected to increase its workforce to about 60 employees.

Rural counties fight for every job they can get. Rural businesspeople are some of the most creative and scrappy people I’ve met. I’m glad to hear the lights are still on in Baker City.

Robin Doussard is the Editor of Oregon Business.

 
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