We can't escape it. In our capitalistic society, it's our barometer, our measuring stick: the economy.
Nationally, the staggering economy followed only Sept. 11 as the biggest domestic story of 2001. Locally, the economy and business issues are at the forefront of what's going to be an interesting, important 2002.
A gaze into Jefferson County's crystal ball shows 2002 will be a year that several substantial preliminary steps will be taken in the Madras state prison project in preparation for its ground-breaking in early 2003. We're all about to become freshman-equivalent engineering students as we'll learn more about Cogentrix than we ever thought possible. We had a hint of this in late 2001, but this year the City of Madras may seek a way to exclude "big box" stores from opening in the Madras area and potentially shredding our existing business economy. This spring the Warm Springs Indian Reservation will address a referendum to open a casino in Hood River, a controversial project that could bring substantially more money to the tribes than does its present Kah-Nee-Ta casino.
The prison has been a factor in Jefferson County economics for several years now, ever since Measure 11 passed and Madras joined a list of potential prison sites. People opened businesses awaiting its arrival, voters passed bonds expecting its arrival. There have been delays, state-level money scares, but it appears that the prison project is on track ... and as a community we should all be very thankful.
During the three- to four-year construction period, hundreds of workers will migrate to the area, renting homes, buying goods and services, strengthening our economy. When opened for business, the prison will draw hundreds of other, more permanent residents to our community, stabilize and expand our job opportunities, and the new residents will shrink our tax load..
With our economy flat at best, the prison can't come soon enough.
And then there's Cogentrix.
The North Carolina-based company's plan to build a natural gas-fired electricity-producing plant near Grizzly was a giant story in 2001, and will be even more so in 2002 as it goes through the permit process.
Before 2001 ended, the chamber of commerce board made their support of Cogentrix official. That was about as surprising as the Beatles making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the chamber should support Cogentrix. It's a project that could have substantial economic impact on the county, and the chamber's primary responsibility is to support local business and the economic vitality of the county.
Those against Cogentrix -- and that includes a wide array of people of various interest and backgrounds, and not just those who live in the impacted area -- should realize the chamber's function and angle on this issue, and agree to disagree.
When Deschutes Valley Water District experts are unconcerned about Cogentrix's potential water use, and its believed that the plant would be equivalent to about 1 percent of our present air pollution, it's hard to see this proposal being stopped -- or for that matter, why it should be. Jefferson County residents need to keep open minds on this issue, and not rush to judgement, on either side.
Coincidence or not, Madras mayor Rick Allen's discussions about setting policy that would preclude a "big box" store (which in some cases is spelled Wal-Mart) came just as the Christmas season kicked in, and most Madras area merchants were gearing up for a season in which nearly all experienced a substantial slowdown from 2001.
Establishing a policy, one which would hold up in court, that could limit allowable businesses via square-footage or product allocation (i.e., one store cannot be a grocery outlet, clothing company, sporting goods shop, pharmacy, fast food restaurant, tire store, nursery, etc.) would help sustain Madras as we know it.
But such a policy walks a thin line. This is, thank God, America, where capitalism and freedom reign. Setting policy against the Big Guy seemingly to help the Little Guy smacks of the Communist Manifesto.
But this much is true. Already Madras businesses struggle to survive, to employ, to pay taxes and provide services. A giant mega-mart on the edge of town would create a vacuum that would slam Main Streets doors shut -- for good.
Madras has quality shops, many specializing on low prices. High prices do not keep Madras people from shopping in Madras. The biggest culprit I would say is variety. Midsize stores that aren't so all-encompassing and all-consuming would be welcomed in Madras, and in fact are needed if we're to improve the livability and attractiveness of our community.
No doubt establishing a policy against big box stores will be difficult. Those who might harp that the people for it are just concerned about protecting their own economic interests are missing the point. A policy against big box stores isn't about saving businesses, it's about saving towns.
Set a limit of 60,000 square feet (the Safeway store is XX) to be reviewed when Madras has a population of, say, 12,000 or 15,000.
Another substantial economic issue of 2002 has been around for a couple years as well: the Warm Springs continuing saga of placing a casino near Hood River.
The tribes tried the nice approach with the Hood River folks and were rebuffed. Now, the mood among reservation officials is more like we have the right to build there, and if we choose to, we will.
Come this spring, the tribes will ask their members to approve a casino project in Hood River via a referendum.
It will be interesting to see how the tribal members vote. The existing casino helps make Kah-Nee-Ta more viable, provides local jobs, and offers entertainment to tribal members. Moving it to Hood River promises to bring in more money, but not without losing many of those benefits Indian Head provides. Also, many tribal members are adamant that if the tribes have a casino, it needs to be on the reservation.
It's just a issue with millions of dollars worth of ramifications, each and every year ... no big deal.
Certainly, as far as years go, in the economic impact world, 2002 is shaping up to be a very big deal.