A$50,000 donation from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday will help kick-start a local effort to attract and assist high-tech, clean energy businesses.
The "Sustainable Valley" initiative would brand Jackson County as the place to come to start a high-tech business and create family-wage jobs while buffering the area from sharp and prolonged economic downturns.
"We thought this was the best and brightest idea we've heard in a long time," Commissioner C.W. Smith said.
The brainchild of Jackson County officials, Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and local businesses, the plan would create an organization to provide office space, support services and even line up venture capital to help launch emerging businesses.
"It's an economic development strategy that will nurture and create family-wage jobs through technology," said Jessica Gomez, one of the owners of Rogue Valley Microdevices.
Her own business has about 10 employees who layer microscopic applications on silicon wafers for use in solar projects and other specialized areas.
Gomez and Mark VonHolle are co-chairs of a local group that hopes to raise $2 million over the next two years to provide seed money and support services for emerging high-tech businesses. The group would augment the existing economic development work carried out by SOREDI, focusing its energies on high-tech and clean energy sectors of the economy.
"Our job here is to lobby for that company, to further develop their ideas and their products," she said.
The Sustainable Valley idea is modeled after similar ventures in Sunnyvale, Calif. and Sonoma County, Calif.
VonHolle, SOREDI board president and vice president of S&B James Contruction Management, said the kinds of businesses that would be courted and supported would have an emphasis on clean technology such as solar, electric vehicles, biomass, valued-added food processing, environmental technology and energy services.
Examples of those kinds of businesses already operating in the Rogue Valley include Amy's Kitchen, Dagoba, Brammo, Barefoot Motors, Summit Wood Products, Forest Energy Group, Upwind Solutions and Sky Research.
Oregon's reputation as a green energy state would help Jackson County in its efforts to brand the Sustainable Valley image, VonHolle said.
The pursuit of high-tech companies also will be aided locally by the proximity of the Rogue Valley to Silicon Valley and Oregon's lower taxes, compared with California, he said.
The $50,000 county investment is the first step in a six-month process to raise $180,000 to incorporate Sustainable Valley as a non-profit, to pick a site to locate the facility that will help local entrepreneurs, to prepare a three-year business plan and to line up another $500,000 for operations and investment from local, state, federal and private sources.
Commissioner Dave Gilmour said the county has attempted to attract big businesses locally with only minimal successes.
The new strategy would promote small businesses, which would in turn attract more like-minded businesses and build on the modest high-tech industry that is already in the county, he said.
"We need a critical mass of those folks," Gilmour said.
VonHolle said another $20,000 has been pledged by local business such as Asante and Lithia Motors as well as the city of Medford and Business Oregon. Other companies, including Medford Fabrication and Brammo Motorsports have expressed interest in the idea.
VonHolle said it is increasingly important that something be done to promote start-up business, as mills close in White City and the timber industry remains a shell of its former self.
"It's a howling wasteland out there," VonHolle said.
He said some former mill sites could be converted into high-tech centers.
In addition to facing difficulties in finding timber to harvest, mills have been hit with stricter air quality rules. And, with 50 percent of the county owned by the federal government and managed under strict environmental rules, tapping into timber resources will continue to be a difficult, he said.
"It's tough for us to be masters of our own destiny," he said.
VonHolle said Sustainable Valley will look for a commercial building in the area to house staff and to provide space for entrepreneurs. He said more than one site could be created for these offices.
Bill Thorndike, owner of Medford Fabrication, said he supports the Sustainable Valley concept as a way to move the valley ahead economically.
Thorndike said that even though Medford Fabrication has struggled through the recession, the company has pledged $1,000 toward the effort.
He said proponents of the Sustainable Valley concept such as Gomez and VonHolle bring much-needed enthusiasm to the initiative.
"For a relatively small investment, we can go out and test the waters and see if this is what is missing for business to grow and form," he said.
Thorndike said the word sustainable has become popular, generating 77 million Google hits.
"Will it be successful? I don't know," he said. "But if we don't try, we will never know."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.