Job losses put more interest on Deer Ridge


   By Tony Ahern
   Around Christmas time, who would have thought that 2007 would get off to such a bad economic start?
   Seaswirl closing its doors is a big hit to the county's employment and economy, and a severe blow to the community of Culver and Jefferson County in general. You don't lose 170 jobs and the eighth-highest county taxpayer without pain.
   When April comes and the plant is closed, it will mark the end of an era. Since 1971, the plant in the little town of Culver has been building quality boats, largely supporting a community's economy while employing about 250 people during its many peak years in the '90s and into this decade.
   What makes the Seaswirl closure reverberate all the more is it comes on the heels of the Madras-based Bright Wood eliminating about 10 percent of its local workforce, about 140 jobs.
   While it won't get national headlines like a 6,000-employee car plant closure might draw, on our local scale, it has about the same impact. That's a lot of jobs lost.
   In 2006, when the Department of Corrections began gauging local interest in jobs at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, they were, it's fair to say, underwhelmed by the response. Certainly there was interest in employment at the new state prison, which offered very good salary and benefit packages, but there wasn't a rush for information. Even as late as this past November, there weren't overflow crowds at prison employment information gatherings.
   But how things have changed.
   Since talk of the prison in Madras first started in the mid-1990s, the real economic buzz on Deer Ridge wasn't necessarily that you or your friend might get a job at the prison, but rather the community was excited about the side economic benefits it would bring -- spark more retail, lure more well-paid residents, inspire housing developers to jump from plan approval to moving dirt.
   Prior to this rough start of 2007, the last couple years have been very good to workers in Jefferson County. Unemployment has been very low. Nearly everyone who wanted a job, and was capable of working, was able to get one. In fact, a key employment discussions regarding the prison wasn't of giddiness regarding jobs coming to town but the concern that good employees would be lured away from existing plants that have been so important to the county over the years.
   It was interesting to see the outside media coverage of the prison coming to Madras around 2005, those done with an anti-prison slant, with accounts of how prisons are not economic panaceas to communities. What those accounts usually failed to mentioned, though, is that local residents didn't expect the prison to be an economic savior in Madras, only a contributor to an already sturdy and ever-strengthening economy.
   Madras and Jefferson County weren't desperate for the jobs Deer Ridge offered. You bet we welcomed them -- especially with our relatively low average salary statistic -- but we weren't desperate for them. Though desperate may be too strong of a term, after absorbing the job losses we have in the past month or so, we are in the position of knowing the prison can't open soon enough.
   Jefferson County folks who have viewed Deer Ridge as an economic partner and not a savior have to admit the field has evolved somewhat over the past month. Before, the thought process was hoping good people get the jobs and move here; now it's hoping the good people of our communities who need jobs there get them. Our economic partnership with Deer Ridge is being tested early.
   Deer Ridge has invigorated this economy almost since the day a Madras location was announced, inspiring development and entrepreneurship years before an inmate's arrival. Now, it's supplying hope, and soon, real jobs, with really good pay. It's a big flag of hope to many of those recently downsized into unemployment.
   When it opens later this year, Deer Ridge will be another leg under the chair of our economy. It's just that we're locking the leg in place a little earlier than was thought, forcing it to hold more weight than expected. It's good to know that it's a sturdy leg -- one we can count on not to waver.