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SOREDI grant is welcome but only a start

An infusion of money from federal coronavirus relief funds will allow the regional economic development agency to help local tourism-dependent communities make plans for recovery and offer some assistance to businesses and efforts to shelter the homeless. At the same time, a state program is distributing one-time, $500 payments to help displaced workers who are still waiting for unemployment benefits.

These efforts are welcome and will help, but cannot replace everything that has been lost to the economic damage the pandemic has caused. More assistance will be needed, primarily from the federal level.

Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. is among nine regional development districts that will share $3.6 million in federal funding authorized by the CARES Act that Congress passed in March. SOREDI’s share is $400,000, which will be allocated to programs in Jackson and Josephine counties.

SOREDI plans to use some of the money to help tourism-dependent Ashland and Jacksonville look for ways to diversify their economies as well as make plans to help the tourism industry recover by offering marketing assistance. Other plans for the money include a grant to Rogue Retreat, which is operating various homeless shelter alternatives including the new urban campground on Biddle Road.

SOREDI also will offer three months of interest forgiveness to businesses using its loan program.

All of these efforts are helpful, but fall far short of what will be needed if the local economy is to hope for a real recovery from the pandemic shutdown. Some businesses have reopened in a limited way, but many remain shuttered, and whether they can manage to reopen is far from clear.

Federally funded enhanced unemployment benefits helped keep some workers afloat, but those benefits have run out and have not been renewed. The state Employment Department has struggled to cope with the increased demand for benefits, hampered by an antiquated computer system that should have been upgraded years ago. The $500 relief payments are a welcome gesture, but will hardly make up for continued lost wages and delayed jobless benefits.

As important as it is to keep workers in their homes with food on their families’ tables, helping businesses to come back from forced closures is equally vital, because only that will put Oregonians back to work. When Congress reconvenes in September, a fourth relief package must be the top priority, and it must include help for businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.