Several counties in eastern Oregon have seen the biggest increases in average private-sector weekly wages across the state, a sign these local economies could be headed for stronger growth.
Harney, Malheur, Crook, Lake and Grant counties had the highest year-on-year average weekly wage gains across all private-sector industries in the third quarter of 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The possible reasons behind the salary hikes are varied, painting a complex picture of economic development at the local level.
The increase in the state’s minimum wage is one likely driver behind the higher salaries. The minimum wage increased to $10 an hour for non-urban counties in July 2017, from $9.25 in January 2016.
The new minimum is a welcome relief for low-paid workers, but it has had a knock-on effect of causing some employers to move to states with lower minimum wages, such as Idaho, say economic development experts.
Despite the minimum wage increase, counties also report new businesses coming to their region, helping to boost job growth.
Here is a look at what’s behind the weekly wage jumps in a handful of eastern counties:
Graphic by Joan McGuire
This rural county in the southeast of the state, which became famous as the center of an armed occupation of the nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016, had the biggest increase in its average weekly wage of all Oregon’s counties.
Private-sector weekly salaries climbed 8.5% between the third quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2017, according to BLS data.
While wages grew, the county’s employment rate dipped 1.1% over the same timeframe.
The minimum wage increase explains the jump in the county’s average weekly salary, says Greg Smith, head of Harney County Economic Development. He also attributes the county’s reduced workforce to the loss of seasonal jobs.
Despite the employment decline, Smith says the local community is optimistic about the county’s economic development prospects. “There is a real sense of excitement in the county,” he says.
Members of business and government have been meeting over the past six months to work through a plan to attract businesses to the region, says Smith. “We are trying to figure out how to create good, family-wage jobs.”
County members are trying to recruit professionals in the trades, including a plumber, electrician and building inspector. They are also trying to bring in a quilt shop. Their wish list includes an intermodal transit center, such as a reloading center for trucks, to take advantage of the county’s strategic location between Portland, Spokane, WA and Reno, Nevada.
County members have been sending 60 to 80 letters a month to professional groups around the country to tell them about financing opportunities for opening a business. Their efforts are reflected in new development on the main street in the county seat of Burns, including a recently opened bookstore.
Graphic by Joan McGuire
This county in the far east of Oregon had a 7.2% increase in the average weekly wage, the second highest of all Oregon counties.
Like Harney County, the minimum wage increase is a driving force behind the average salary bump. John Breidenbach, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, estimates the mandated wage hike has led to the loss of more than 100 jobs in the county. “People are moving jobs to Idaho where the minimum wage is lower,” he says.
Businesses that have left the county include onion packing sheds and some retail stores.
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Breidenbach says he would like to attract new employers to the county but hasn’t seen much activity yet. Manufacturing jobs are the most sought after, including food production facilities to process the food grown in the area. He also welcomes high tech industries, such as solar panel manufacturing.
Tourism is one of the most promising sector for job growth, he adds.
Graphic by Joan McGuire
The average weekly wage increased 5.8% in Lake County, one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state. Unlike Harney and Malheur counties, Lake County’s employment rate increased at the same time as wages. The jobs rate climbed 3.2% between the third quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2017.
Several small businesses have recently opened in the area. “We have done a lot more ribbon cuttings than in the past,” says Jessica Bogardus, executive director of Lake County Chamber of Commerce.
A new coffee shop, a Dollar General store and a couple of cannabis dispensaries are among the newcomers to Lakeview, the county seat.
The minimum wage hike hasn’t led to an exodus of employers, says Bogardus. “We have heard employers are giving raises to keep employees here,” she says.
A big coup for the county is the pending arrival of a biofuel manufacturing facility. Red Rock Biofuels, a producer of renewable and low-carbon jet and diesel fuels, has permits to build a facility in Lakeview, creating 380 jobs.
“It will have a huge impact. It is a ton of jobs,” says Bogardus.
Red Rock Biofuels describes on its website Lakeview’s ideal location near timber resources, an interstate natural gas pipeline and short line rail.
Commenting on why more businesses are coming to the county, Bogardus says the slower pace of life and “cowboy lifestyle” are selling points.
Graphic by Joan McGuire
The county’s average weekly wage grew 4.3%, while its job rate increased approximately the same rate at 4%.
A big initiative of the local government has been the rollout of broadband internet to the entire county. In April, the local public utility extended fiber optic internet service to a further 1,400 customers.
Nick Green, the new city manager of county seat John Day, was the driving force behind the construction of a new hydroponic greenhouse, which will grow commercial produce crops. It is planned for the hydroponic plant to use reclaimed water from a local sewage treatment plant.
The logging and ranching sectors are doing fairly well in the county, says Bruce Ward, the new president of the Grant County Chamber of Commerce. He would like to see a new wood products manufacturing facility built in the county to take advantage of the woody biomass resources in the county.
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Ward, who also works as a building contractor, supports construction of more housing within the city limits. “We have a low inventory of decent houses,” says Ward. At least 26 houses were destroyed by wildfire near John Day in 2015.
“Every contractor I know is so busy,” says Ward.
Job and economic growth from tourism is another area the chamber hopes to push forward. The agency is working with the state’s tourism agency, Travel Oregon, to promote the area to tourists.
“Our chamber needs to send a positive message that we live in one of the greatest places on earth,” says Ward.
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