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Falling down on the jobs

Business leaders and economic development officials say they wonder whether this area is really trying to attract new businesses and therefore new jobs, or just going through the motions. It's a fair question.

Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. was created in 1988, combining separate economic development agencies in Jackson and Josephine counties. It's funding has fluctuated over the years along with the fortunes of local government and the local economy, but the recession hit the agency particularly hard.

Contributions to its budget from local cities and counties dwindled, and private participation in SOREDI's revolving loan fund fell off as local businesses weathered the downturn. Staff were laid off, and the four that remained were forced to take furlough days to keep the budget balanced.

That may have been expected, but other regional development efforts have fared far better. Economic Development for Central Oregon, which serves Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, gets nearly $300,000 from the three governments. The city of Bend chips in $90,000; Redmond, $100,000.

Jackson and Josephine counties managed to scrape together $51,000 for SOREDI, Medford — the size of Bend — gave $26,000, while Ashland — roughly comparable in size to Redmond — contributed $2,700.

That's a poor showing by any measure. And make no mistake: The Rogue Valley is in direct competition for outside investment with other areas in this state and other states.

There are some differences, to be fair. The Central Oregon agency benefits from lodging taxes generated by large resorts — an income source not available here. And Deschutes County supports its library system with a taxing district — something Jackson County may do if voters approve a library district in the May election.

What do libraries have to do with economic development dollars? State video poker proceeds earmarked for local economic development efforts have been diverted to libraries, a qualifying expense under the state's loose rules.

If voters agree to support libraries directly, that could free up poker proceeds for SOREDI. But the shell game of parceling out state dollars isn't the sole answer to this area's anemic commitment to development.

Local officials such as the Jackson County commissioners, who were elected on pledges to promote jobs, need to step up and find ways to support economic development efforts. City leaders, too, should make support for those efforts a higher priority.

Government doesn't create jobs, the mantra goes. Perhaps not directly — although construction projects and road work certainly provide employment to many in the industries that contract to perform that work. But government-sponsored marketing efforts can and do attract private companies to bring their operations here.

Marketing, as any business person can tell you, takes money.