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Lifelong Learning: OLLI participants define positive future for local economy

What kind of economic future is in store for the Rogue Valley after we get past COVID-19 and rebuild following the Almeda fire? This is a question participants in a fall-semester OLLI course have been working to answer.

As a volunteer OLLI instructor, I’ve been leading this project-focused course to offer 25 participants a chance not only to gain a greater understanding of how a regional economy operates, but also to take an active role in defining future opportunities for the economic recovery and growth of the Rogue Valley region.

The group used a three-step analytical framework developed by my consulting center when I was with the Stanford Research Institute during a 20-year professional career in the field of regional economic competitiveness. We first identified the primary industry clusters in the region, then defined the opportunities and challenges these clusters will confront over the next decade, and finally developed a set of possible strategic initiatives that could help our region thrive and prosper.

A project like this wasn’t in my plans at all when my wife and I moved to Ashland in early 2019. The existence of the OLLI program at Southern Oregon University, one of the biggest and most active in the country, contributed to our decision to move here.

However, our intention was simply to take advantage of the wide range of courses offered to pursue familiar fields in more depth and explore topics we never had the chance to study. After my first positive experiences, I decided to go further and develop and teach some courses myself. I had long been interested in the history of science and engineering, so that seemed like a natural topic for me.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the social and cultural life of Ashland in March, I changed my mind. In one of my last professional projects at SRI, I led a team that developed an economic development program to help the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in its recovery after the Northridge earthquake. I couldn’t help noting the similarities between the two situations. Though the San Fernando Valley has multiples of the population of the Rogue Valley, the problem occurred just as abruptly and caused as much economic disruption as our problems here this year.

So, instead of an academic course in technology history, I decided to define a project that could be done within the structure of an OLLI course, and see if there were other people who were interested in working with me on it.

I was not surprised when the limit of number of course participants was reached within two days of its announcement. There’s something about the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world that the kind of people who take OLLI courses find irresistible.

Even better, the participants who signed up couldn’t have been more qualified if I had carefully recruited them. In the course, we have retired professors, teachers and academic administrators, doctors and nurses, public relations professionals, engineers, scientists and public service managers. Some of the participants have lived here all their lives, and others moved after having visited here as tourists.

By dividing the enterprises that bring money into the region into clusters of related activities, our group determined that six industry clusters each had strategic importance to the region. The six clusters were performing arts, including both tourism and entertainment production; outdoor adventure and ecological tourism; value-added agriculture, including orchard fruits, vineyards, wineries and dairies; senior living and elder care facilities and services; entrepreneurial technology, developing products and services for manufacture inside and beyond our region; and forestry management, an industry in transition from lumber production to environmental stewardship.

The group observed that our colleges and university play integral roles in several of the clusters and that health care in the Rogue Valley is both a support industry to the senior living and elder care cluster and an integral part of our local economy.

Working as individual groups, the project team was able to identify possible initiatives that each industry cluster might pursue to address existing needs and take advantage of opportunities for growth out of the COVID-19 and fire conditions and afterward. They also developed a group of recommendations for regional organizations to facilitate pursuit of these initiatives.

As the course concludes, members of the groups are hoping to take its ideas and proposals out for consideration by the decision-makers in the regional economy, eventually making a positive difference in the future of our communities.

Gary Anderson is an OLLI instructor, former consultant with Stanford Research Institute, and former editor-in-chief for several automotive magazines. He can be contacted at garyandersonmm@gmail.com.

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