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Discovering the gems of Southern Oregon

The grand ballroom of the Ashland Hills Hotel was converted into an Indiana Jones movie scene Thursday night complete with a Temple of Doom and a snake pit.

The nostalgia was a purposeful ploy by Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc. for its 32nd annual meeting.

The theme of last year’s annual meeting was “seriously playful,” and the organization wanted to play off that while highlighting the “gems” in the community, said Executive Director Colleen Padilla.

The nonprofit business group is a member-based organization that serves 15 jurisdictions in Josephine and Jackson counties, working toward improving the economy by supporting local businesses, recruiting new ones to the area, and helping entrepreneurs launch new businesses.

Padilla said SOREDI has brought three new businesses to the region this year, which will provide about 50 jobs.

She said SOREDI also loaned nearly $20 million to small businesses and gave out about $9,000 in scholarships to high school students through a digital scavenger hunt this year. The scavenger hunt required students to learn about job opportunities in the region that aren’t well advertised.

SOREDI has held 60 sounding-board sessions with entrepreneurs and helped fund one with a $165,000 equity investment, Padilla said.

“It’s not that we can say we helped create 4,000 jobs, but just one job at a time or one thing that helps one company take the next step to make their business successful is helpful,” Padilla said. “They’re small things, but collectively they add up.”

SOREDI works mostly with manufacturers because they provide higher-wage jobs, Padilla said.

“They provide more jobs and provide our citizens opportunity for employment, and we know that when we have good wages that allows us to do other things like go visit the restaurants, be charitable or go to a concert, and it’s really the beginning of the economic trickle-down effect,” Padilla said. “It starts with manufacturers and higher traded-sector companies — most of their business comes from outside of the region.”

As members trickled into the event Thursday, they were handed a treasure map and instructed to find the gems by networking with community leaders at 15 tables — one for each city in the two counties and one table representing each county.

Once they’d found the gems, they were to reach their hand into the snake pit and draw to see whether they’d won a prize donated from each jurisdiction.

Cobwebs, plastic skulls and jewels, chocolate medallions and scrolls dotted the tables, giving the formal meeting a playful feeling.

The scrolls, rolled up and tied with twine in the middle of the tables, were miniature copies of a recent proclamation signed by all the jurisdictions to agree to work together to become the most business-friendly region on the West Coast.

Ashland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery said working together makes the region stronger, which benefits everyone.

“The Ashland Chamber has been involved for decades in economic development, but having everybody working on this economic development strategy that is just starting is a wonderful thing,” Slattery said. “It’s really important to have all of those voices at the table and to discuss ... what are our strengths and weaknesses around economic threat? What does that look like, and how can we all have a part of defining that? It’s more efficient, and it’s a better use of dollars. And we’re supporting each other.”

SOREDI Board President Steve Vincent said the best part of the event is the number of stakeholders who come together for collaboration.

“We have so many stakeholders who may not be traditional roll-up-your-sleeves members in some SOREDI activity, but we have Oregon Technology Institute, Klamath Community College, SOU and RCC as partners at the event, and so many others,” Vincent said. “I think that we, across the two-county region, have reached a point of great collaboration, and we’re seeing each other as partners rather than competitors in this common cause to make our region economically viable and healthy.”

The four schools he mentioned came together to create the Southern Oregon Education Consortium last year with the goal to help the region thrive with a strong, diverse workforce. The consortium was given the Collaboration Award.

According to officials, the four schools served 26,700 students in more than 200 degree programs and more than 100 certificate and apprenticeship programs in 2018, forming an economic footprint estimated at $570 million.

Medford School District Pathways Coordinator Hal Jones won the Inspiration Award. He asked people to raise their hand if they knew a teenager in the Rogue Valley, and then to raise their other hand if they’d heard that teenager say something along the lines of, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

At this point, most audience members had both of their arms in the air.

“Now give your neighbor a high five,” Jones said. He said in his experience most kids who grow up in the area think they must leave to find success, which makes the work that SOREDI undertakes educating students about local job opportunities very important.

Other award recipients included:

The Tenacity Award: Rogue Truck Body for bouncing back even stronger after a hard hit by the 2008 recession.

The Prosperity Award: Rising Sun Farms for successfully providing organic foods while supporting sustainable agriculture on a large scale.

The Ingenuity Award: HerdDogg for fixing a dangerous problem for farmers by creating a smart ear tag for livestock that collects biometric data and transmits it to the farmer’s receiver via Bluetooth.

SOREDI recently contracted with TIP Strategies, an economic strategy firm out of Austin, Texas, to create a 5-year regional comprehensive strategic plan.

As a part of TIP’s regional research, they had the audience take part in a live broadcast survey by connecting to an internet browser and answering a handful of questions in real time.

The answers became moving word clouds or sliding bar graphs on a projection screen as people answered questions on their smartphones such as, “Rank these choices of ‘What are the most important issues facing Southern Oregon over the next 5 years?’” or “What word would you use to describe your vision for the Southern Oregon economy in the next 5 years?”

A full report of the plan will be released Wednesday, Nov. 13.

The night ended with a call to action for everyone to visit all the towns to find the quirky activities that make Southern Oregon unique in support of each other.

“I bet you didn’t know that Bozo the clown grew up in Jacksonville and that you can visit his house, or that there was the first annual Bigfoot Festival in Grants Pass this year,” Padilla said. “You should go check them out.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.