Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

Created at a time when the timber industry's ability to sustain the local economy was beginning to wane, the agency has aided existing businesses and encouraged new ones.

The result has ranged from the much ballyhooed Amy's Kitchen, which now has about 750 employees at its West Antelope Road plant, to lesser-known startups such as The Farming Fish, an aquaponic agricultural enterprise on East Evans Creek Road. In between, SOREDI has loaned Jackson and Josephine County businesses nearly $18 million and spawned a series of entrepreneurial funding efforts that it expects will create new jobs for years to come.

"One of the main goals, going back to 1987, has been to diversify the Southern Oregon economy," said Ron Fox, the organization's executive director since 2006.

"What I tell my staff is that if we assist 400 companies in adding two jobs, that's 800 jobs over a 12- to 18-month period," Fox said. "Two jobs here and one there doesn't grab the headlines, but when you add the numbers up, the numbers are huge."

Jackson County Commissioner Don Skundrick has been on the SOREDI Board much of the past 16 years, including a stint as its president in 2002-2003. He frames the agency's far-reaching benefits by asking how the region would have fared without its presence.

"A lot of people think that economic development is bringing in a bunch of Amy's Kitchens and if that isn't happening every day then the effort is perceived to be a failure," Skundrick said. "They ask what large company did you bring in today; that's not the way economic development works. It's better to ask ... if it weren't here what would have been the impact?"

Skundrick said the organization, which receives significant funding from Medford and Grants Pass as well as the two counties, is frugal with its resources.

"Are they perfect?" Skundrick said. "Have they hit nothing but home runs? No. They've struck out at times, and we've struck out. In this day and age, I'll take a single to advance the runner any time."

Spurred by the involvement of community leaders such as Mike Burrill Sr., John Anhorn and Skip Patterson, SOREDI was able to get competing regional interests to work from the same playbook if not always from the same page. Over the years, the efforts have coalesced.

Gordon Safley, who led the organization for 15 years and was its longest-tenured executive before retiring in 2006, said SOREDI has kept its focus during changing and sometimes turbulent times.

"There have been changes as SOREDI has gone along, but I think it's been very consistent in helping existing businesses expand and bringing new business to the area," Safley said.

"In recent years, there has been a much greater involvement in workforce development. With the demise of the traditional timber industry, SOREDI became a more critical piece to help build the business community and its ability to create jobs."

Fox jumps at the opportunity to demonstrate the Rogue Valley's relative strengths when it comes to companies distributing goods and services without brick and mortar storefronts, primarily through the Internet.

"Jackson County has 10.5 times the national average of businesses classed as nonstore retailers," Fox said. "If you have two times as much, that's particularly significant. If you have five times the national average, that's unique. When you get over 10 times, that's substantial. Harry & David is part of that, and a lot of it is the Motorcycle Superstore."

Looking ahead to its second quarter-century, SOREDI's staff and board has re-examined and honed the organization's mission, goals, vision and values.

"Our real mission is to help businesses prosper," Fox said.

To that end, the staff reaches out to 250 to 300 clients a year.

"In some cases, it's more than one unrelated call to the same company, helping them create more good jobs for the region," he said.

More recently, SOREDI has stepped up support for entrepreneurial enterprises, first through the Jefferson Grapevine, beginning in 2007, and backing the Southern Oregon Angel Investor Conference the past two years. Ashland technology startups Follium Partners and Montrue Technologies, he said, are reflective of what can happen with proper support in coming years.

SOREDI continues sending representatives to trade conferences and continues looking for business owners in search of greener pastures.

"We're still out there convincing individuals or corporations to consider Southern Oregon," Fox said. "Most businesses have chosen to grow in place during the last five years. But California has some huge challenges ahead with its imbalance of revenues and expenses. They are raising personal income and sales taxes. Just as we did in the early 2000s, we expect to see people wanting to move."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email