By Jacq Lacy
Once the busiest exporter of lumber in the world, the International Port of Coos Bay no longer booms with business, and neither does the area around it. Now the Southwestern coastal region is exploring ways to trade large manufacturing business for small businesses generating income from tourism.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development sponsored a jobs and economic growth conference Tuesday in North Bend to allow panelists from southern rural development areas to give perspectives on thriving and dying industries in Southern Oregon. All panelists shared a frightening story about the worsening economic situation in rural Oregon, but some see a little water in the glass of economic opportunity. Tourism seems to be an expanding industry with potential in the southwestern region of the state, panelists said.
Chris Claflin, business development officer for the Oregon Business Development Department, has researched local trends and concluded that the jobs are no longer in manufacturing. In 2008 all the manufacturing companies Claflin called had reduced employment by 10%, and in some cases by 20-30%. Currently, Coos County has a 13.2% unemployment rate.
But as manufacturing jobs have eroded, Claflin noted that “we have seen job growth in health care, in entertainment and hospitality as well.”
Several men and women from the audience, including Frank Williams, a longshoreman, and panelist Jon Barton, president of Friends of New and Sustainable Energy from North Bend, said that rehabilitating the port and rebuilding a pier would encourage wharf tourism and accommodate cruise ships. Williams explained that the port has closer access to Pacific Rim countries than any other port in Oregon, making it a valuable resource.
Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker explained that new transportation improvements will enable growth in tourism.
“The North Bend Airport made sure [the city] could bring more work here,” Walker said. “And the railroad will be traveling at 40 to 45 miles per hour instead of 20. We’re going to see real commerce coming to town.”
With improved infrastructure, more tourists would be able to travel directly to the region. The North Bend airport already services private jets for visitors traveling to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. The internationally recognized resort, located just south of Coos Bay, is thriving and plans to expand by adding a fifth golf course in future months.
Also, branding local products may creatively draw tourists to the region, said panelists and community members. For example Curry County beef ranchers hope to take local beef and brand it with a community name, adding a marketing story and giving a better price to the producer. The same applies for specialty wood products.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to convert a tree into a table and create value here,” Barton said. “We have access to a resource, but we can’t create anything with it.”
In Coos County, organic dairy farms might be able to hire farm tour guides, similar to tours given at Tillamook factories or Alpenrose Dairy farms, said audience members. Some audience members reminded panelists that a cheese factory, similar to the closed Tillamook factory in Bandon, would help increase a market for local cheese, especially artisan cheeses.
Some nearby cities face barriers to growing a tourism industry. In Reedsport, for example, flooding has injured local businesses and prevents tourism from starting in the area, said city manager Scott Somers. Somers is still waiting for a loan application to receive stimulus funds from the federal government to fix the problem.
“We have to fix our infrastructure and get our application forward,” Somers said. “... We have no new pipes or shovels in the ground. We’re still waiting for approval. We have a downtown that is struggling and downtown is flooding.”
Despite obstacles, panelists agreed that overcoming barriers will be a worthwhile push to gain employment by developing the tourism industry.
“In answering the question, ‘where are the jobs going to be,’ we will see growth in the provision of goods and services targeted toward the travel and leisure industry. With the aging demographic these ventures will be entrepreneurial in nature and will help attract more people to the area,” Barton said.
Jacq Lacy is an associate writer for Oregon Business.