WHITE CITY — After reviewing an array of numbers suggesting a "brain drain" spurred by paltry job growth and low wages in Southern Oregon, Mark VonHolle shakes his head.
But he's done more than just fret about it; he's helped pull together a plan to draw technology firms to the valley.
A former board president for both Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and Sustainable Valley Technology Group, VonHolle has long beat the high-tech drum, raising awareness while pursuing community and governmental investment.
"In our valley, 25 percent of people are working in jobs below their skill levels," said VonHolle, who describes the area's economy as having "serious foundational challenges."
"That they're here reflects an intentional lifestyle choice, but they're underserved. We're not dealing with a phenomenal opportunity to build up our high-tech sector."
But VonHolle, the business development director at R.A. Murphy Construction & Development, is dealing with it by helping to create a site where technology can take root.
Last winter, R.A. Murphy Construction acquired an 80-acre parcel between Avenue G and the Denman Wildlife Area with the intention of building Rogue Valley Technology Park — the first of its kind in Southern Oregon.
"It's our region's premier state-certified, shovel-ready industrial site," VonHolle said. "You couldn't ask for a better setting, backing up to Denman Wildlife Area with views of the Table Rocks and Mount McLoughlin."
"Shovel ready" means the site has already gone through an industrial site certification process and is set up for a quick start to construction.
One company VonHolle has been courting would employ 300 people on eight acres.
"Multiply that by 10 and you could have 3,000 jobs out there," he said. "But it's not going to happen overnight."
Rather than develop conceptual drawings, VonHolle said, they'll allow tenants to help design what they want in facilities ranging from 10,000 to 150,000 square feet.
Heather Staff, executive director for Sustainable Valley Technology Group, sees a lot of promise in such a business park.
"It would be an incredible asset," Stafford said. "It could be a destination for early-stage and developing companies. We're between San Francisco and Portland — and Seattle. So we're central to those huge markets where (academic researchers) with patents could test and prove the viability of their technologies. "
VonHolle is aware that having parcels certified shovel-ready doesn't guarantee tenants. Thirteen nearby lots recently had to be re-certified when they went undeveloped.
"I don't want to over-promise and under-deliver on this," VonHolle said. "Remember this an area that has been vacant since World War II, but I do think we will have commitments lined up by end of the year and all the commitments in place within three years."
A technology park with targeted clients would help slow the brain drain of young professionals and provide wages that would attract young families to the area.
"We can slow down the brain drain by keeping those young, tech-educated people in our community who want to stay here and help us grow our economy instead of growing the economy of some other community," VonHolle said.
VonHolle said he is driven by a handful of mind-numbing statistics: Of the 335 largest counties in the country, Jackson County ranks No. 311 in wages — putting it in the lowest 7 percent. Jackson County has fallen 102 places in job growth since the boom times of 2004, according to the Milken Institute, which now lists the area No. 160 for job growth and No. 166 in wage growth.
VonHolle projects the tenants at the technology park would pay an annual average salary of $56,000, or 150 percent of the present $36,000 average wage in the county.
One obstacle to clear, he said, is the size of some corporations. The bigger they are, the slower the wheels move.
"One is a multi-billion Silicon Valley corporation," he said. "We're not the only thing on their plate right now."
On the other hand, land prices, thus finance costs, are a fraction of other tech hubs.
His research showed there are 300 students from the Rogue Valley attending Oregon Institute of Technology at any given time.
"They're not looking back to the valley when they get their degrees," VonHolle said. "They're getting a quality technical education, but they don't think there is opportunity here."
Von Holle said the location has advantages, such as proximity to the Medford airport, that add to its attractiveness.
"The knee-jerk reaction is that White City seems far away," VonHolle said. "I'm working with a company right now that picks up clients at the airport and drives nine minutes to their building. "I've driven from the airport to here, it's nine minutes. Even from the South Medford freeway exit, it's 15 minutes. If you want something different to happen, you have to do something different, and this is long over due.