Growing Rural Oregon for All Oregonians

The decline of the rural Oregon economy hurts all Oregonians, just as restoration of rural prosperity will benefit the entire state.Oregon’s urban/rural divide is an unfortunate, but longstanding reality in the state. The past three decades have seen the the divide deepen as rural areas, for a wide variety of reasons, watched the timber industry slip away and Portland explode with the growth of the Silicon Forest. Rural communities dwindled as families moved to where the jobs are.

Oregon’s economist Mark McMullen drew a picture of the extent of the problem at the Human Services Coalition of Oregon meeting last week — Oregon’s death rate exceeds the birth rate in 13 of Oregon's 36 counties.

Oregon’s rural communities are literally dying before our eyes. The impact of the death over birth rate is alarming — communities in desperate need of jobs and growth are without a workforce population to service new jobs — even if family-wage employers could be enticed to locate in the community. Aging populations require additional assistance from county governments, the same governments already strained due to declining timber receipts and fewer property taxpayers.

Metro area politicians are beginning to grasp the enormity of the problem, passing legislation in 2011 and 2013 to bail out counties in crisis, develop additional water resources on the Columbia and an executive order enabling a new land-use pilot project in Southern Oregon. However, their constituents are generally unaware of the impact of the decline in rural communities.

For most Oregonians, visiting the South Coast is a vacation or an excuse for a golf outing — not awareness that the once-busy International Port of Coos Bay has fallen all-too silent over the years. The Rogue River Valley has become home to wine country and rafting tours — excellent industries to be sure — but many of the mills that kept the hum of the community going after the summer tourism season closed, are now largely gone.

Metro Oregonians have become blind to the rural decline — the lack of active rural industry is the norm, not a pending disaster. They fail to see a strong Oregon as a vital Oregon in all sections and sectors of the state. They don't recognize economic activity in rural Oregon creating jobs and business in the metro region.

Our rural areas, while fading, aren’t entirely lost. New opportunities have begun to create growth in key areas — Newport’s acquisition of the NOAA Marine Operations Center has started to transform that community and Prineville is capitalizing on the growth of server facilities for Facebook and other high tech companies. Umatilla County is on the verge of a massive opportunity to transform the Umatilla Chemical Depot into a major industrial site with excellent rail and river access as the military completes its destruction of chemical weapons and returns the site to the community.

Opportunity abounds — how to capitalize on it remains the question.

Government alone cannot turn rural communities around. Still, there are ways for government to help. Excellent infrastructure, strong schools, active economic development recruitment combined with incentives to lure industry here are key contributions of government.

Local leaders who are forward thinking and collaborative are another factor in successful recruitment. Support from statewide business-oriented associations, as well as labor and social service organizations for rural community development, provides a much needed political lift to these investments.

The biggest challenge, but a critical intangible asset, is a common desire among all Oregonians to see the return of prosperity to rural Oregon.

We can’t succeed if we’re divided — and allowing rural Oregon to slip away will impact all of us.