Oregon Business Plan seeks focused action

Job-creation is prime focus for a delegation from the Rogue Valley
Logging, employment and construction are among the topics to be covered at the Oregon Business Plan Summit on Monday in Portland. Southern Oregon representatives hope the summit, which has a stated goal of mapping out strategies for economic growth in the state, will provide paths for the creation of jobs in Jackson and Josephine counties, where joblessness is high.

The impediments to long-term job creation are many and they can't all be tackled at once.

When the Oregon Business Plan Summit unfolds Monday in Portland, a Southern Oregon delegation hopes the issues addressed will provide paths for the creation of jobs in Jackson and Josephine counties, where double-digit unemployment has become a way of life.

The summit is a meeting of business groups and leaders from across Oregon to map out strategies for economic growth in the state. It was first created in 2002 at the behest of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The Oregon Business Plan's over-arching goals are to create 25,000 new jobs annually, raise per-capita income above the national average by 2020 and reduce poverty. "A lot of (business people) think we've talked long enough," said Bill Thorndike, chairman of the Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. board and president of Medford Fabrication. "It's time for action."

Many of the problems facing business are the same as when the inaugural summit occurred 10 years ago. The business community will suggest Gov. John Kitzhaber target Public Employee Retirement System reform, education overhaul and replacement of the present Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River as his top priorities.

Two of the three affect everybody in the state, while the third is a major bottleneck for transportation in the Portland metropolitan area. There are secondary regional issues, including timber for Southern Oregon. "We're ready to move," Thorndike said. "The question has been are we ready to grow? Now it's ready, set, grow, and this (OBP plan) is the blueprint."

The ultimate goal for PERS, according to the OBP's "playbook," is to address the program's unsustainable growth while ensuring "competitive compensation." The next steps are to "align total costs of compensation with other states and the private sector." That would free up dollars for the state to improve education and workforce training.

A new generation of education initiatives are in the works, including granting the University of Oregon and Portland State University autonomy, while moving post-secondary funding policy under the oversight of a single board.

The Columbia Crossing project has gained added urgency because federal money needed for construction may disappear.

Corresponding to support for the bridge, Thorndike said, would be comparable backing from Willamette Valley interests for Southern Oregon projects when transportation-related requests come up here.

The OBP's goal for companies to have access to capital has been aided by the Oregon Community Foundation, which has been an investor in the Southern Oregon Angel Network competition. The business plan also calls for the Legislature to adopt an Oregon Growth Board proposal, making it more attractive for private investors to participate in early-stage, venture and debt investment.

SOREDI Executive Director Ron Fox said the goal for adoption of clear, consistent regulations and permitting processes is nearer locally, because of the state's approval of the Regional Problem Solving plan in Jackson County. The plan identifies areas of future growth for most of the cities in the Bear Creek Valley. "We have a lot of land zoned for industrial use," Fox said. "But little of it is ready for development. No prospective company is going take a look at property where it's going to take two years to get infrastructure in when they are dealing on a six-month time line."

Thorndike pointed out Southern Oregon is ahead of the curve with its natural gas-fueling and electric-vehicle charging stations. "We're part of the statewide solution," he said.

The OBP's next steps for energy include streamlining facility and transmitting siting project approval while capital costs remain low, and converting fleets to more efficient fuels.

"With some of the subjects we've been working on, we won't see immediate satisfaction," Thorndike said. "We're dealing with long-term transitions of institutions that haven't changed in a long time. We want to get beyond studying the issues to where we are changing the rules of engagement."

Fox said the Portland summit will be reprised in an invitation-only mini-summit in Medford on Jan. 11, which will allow local business leaders to get more details on the economic plan.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.


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