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Newcomers follow the jobs

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Oregon is an attractive place to move, especially when good-paying jobs are plenteous.

Coming out of the Great Recession, Jackson County has followed the lead of other metro regions in the state. Business expansion, new jobs and in-migration all boosted Oregon population growth, which has ranked among the national leaders for several years.

The growth rate is now declining, even though the raw numbers are comparable. The surge of newcomers to the state slowed last year to an annual rate of 1.3 percent from an annual rate of 1.6 percent the previous two years, while Jackson County’s rate has leveled off to 1 percent.

“People tend to follow the jobs,” said Josh Lehner, senior economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. “When people have a job opportunity — particularly in a place like Oregon or the Northwest more broadly — where they have a great quality of life, outdoor recreation opportunities, breweries, mild climates, all that sort of good stuff that attracts people — they will move here.”

Medford’s population surpassed the 80,000 mark, according to preliminary figures from the Portland State University Population Research Center, adding 715 people — a 1 percent increase. Eagle Point showed a 2 percent gain to 9,105. No incorporated town lost population, although Phoenix and Gold Hill showed no gain.

“We’re deeper into the business cycle now, and you would anticipate seeing less inward migration, although we still have some business expansion left in this cycle,” said University of Oregon economist Tim Duy. “The most aggressive part of the business cycle is where you have the fastest growth. There is less need to rebuild quickly now, because they’ve already rebuilt. Unemployment is pretty low, so we’re still in a situation where you want new workers to come in.”

In the Rogue Valley, there are 2,000 job openings posted for Jackson and Josephine counties, but job creation has plateaued, partly because the workforce hasn’t grown, said Guy Tauer, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department.

Oregon has benefited from the arrival of skilled newcomers, who grow roots, Lehner said. But that advantage is eroding.

“A lot of people that move here every year are these 20- or 30-something-year-olds that are largely unattached,” he said. “They move to Oregon, start their careers, settle down, get married and have kids, buy a house — things that are really good for the local economy. They provide an ample supply of skilled labor for local businesses. It’s increasingly important as we shift to a more service-based economy.”

If wages don’t keep pace with rising housing costs, he warned, the labor stream could be diverted to other states.

“The biggest risk moving forward over the next five, 10, 15 years for Oregon and the Rogue Valley is housing affordability. The reason isn’t just because it puts so much pressure on household budgets. It leaves them less money to put gas in the tank or food on the table. If they can’t afford to move here, they will look elsewhere,” Lehner said. “Maybe it’s to Idaho, maybe to Colorado or wherever.”

For decades, the Rogue Valley has been the beneficiary of a steady stream of retirees moving from out of state. But unlike workers in their prime earning years, retirees tend to spend less — except on medical care — as time goes by.

Although small in comparison with major metro areas, Jackson County has seen steady tech employment gains.

“Medford has the advantage of an interstate freeway and airport to go with jobs and amenities,” Duy said. “It’s a large enough area that it provides economies of scale, and an agglomeration effect where more firms with more people are becoming more effective.”

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Traffic moves through the intersection of Highland Dr and Barnett Rd in Medford Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneTraffic moves through the intersection of Highland Drive and Barnett Road in Medford Wednesday morning.