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One last economic ear flick


   By Tony Ahern
   There's no way around it. 2007 brought us some cold, bitter economic reality here in Jefferson County.
   In the dead of winter came the news that Seaswirl, the lifeblood of Culver, was shutting down, eliminating 170 jobs. On the heels of the Seaswirl closure, Bright Wood announced one of its largest employment cuts ever, slicing 10 percent of its workforce, 140 jobs. The sonic boom of the real local estate market that hit around 2005 and 2006 faded to near silence during 2007. Housing projects stopped and planned commercial projects never materialized.
   As a final 2007 insult to our community's economy, late December brought the news that the Department of Corrections has decided that the medium-security facility at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution would remain dark past its scheduled February opening.
   This isn't overwhelmingly bad news. In fact, it was met with the offsetting word that the filling of the minimum security facility would be ramped up, adding 400 inmates -- more than were to be the first at the medium -- in the next couple months instead of over the next five years.
   DRCI officials note that no one hired for the medium security facility will be laid off, but instead transferred to the minimum.
   Still, the longer the medium facility stays dark, the fewer jobs the facility will provide. The medium was scheduled to see approximately 300 inmates in February, and 100 or so more in September, then another 100 each quarter until full occupancy. When both facilities are full bore, the prison expects to provide about 450 jobs. Currently under 200 are employed.
   Our local economy is hungry to reach full employment at Deer Ridge, have been eager for it since talk of a state prison started a decade ago, and now we're told that we must be patient. Like 2-year-olds, it isn't something we want to hear.
   Blame this economic bump on the twice-yearly prison population reports -- all powerful when it comes to the DOC's operation decisions. The fall report indicated that the prison numbers regarding medium-security inmates were trending downward. Until that changes, there would be no need to open the Madras facility.
   Those twice-yearly population reports have had the Madras state prison project dancing for years, changing construction time frames from needing it yesterday to maybe not at all. In 2005 the Legislature was divided on whether or not to fund construction of the Madras state prison. In the early days of the session, most experts felt the Legislature was going to sink the funding, but then the April population report came in. Once the report indicated beds were indeed needed, and economic forecast predicted substantially more state revenue than was feared, eventual approval of the funding was all but assured. Though rhetoric continued to fly, funding was OK'd in the session's final days.
   But now we have again landed on the other end of a population report. The projected need has slowed for the time being, thus prompting the DOC to delay the opening of the medium facility. If you're interested in the state being financially prudent, and applaud the fact that the need for incarcerations has currently eased, you should celebrate the decision.
   City of Madras officials were quick to respond to the announcement by saying it was a good thing as it gave the city's infrastructure time to catch up. Nothing wrong with being a glass-is-half-full city hall, I guess. I know there are a few developers and home builders that viewed the news with a less than positive reaction. The expansive Yarrow project, which came on line just as the real estate market started to skid, is certainly eager for the prison and other commercial activities to bring a few more well-employed citizens to Madras.
   Though the delay is mildly disappointing economic news for the community, it needs to be viewed in this context, too. The November unemployment rate in Jefferson County was 7.2 percent, the highest for the month since 1993. We have 1.2 percent fewer jobs in the county than we did in November 2006. All that is with 200 or so Deer Ridge jobs figured in.
   So, how bad would the outlook be without Deer Ridge? It's already paying economic dividends in the community. If there's been a negative, social or otherwise, I haven't heard about it.
   When they speak of the prison's impact on the local economy, Deer Ridge officials note long-term realities, not short-term setbacks. They're absolutely right. Deer Ridge may have to wait several months, maybe even a year or so, before the medium-security facility opens for businesses. When it does, it will stay in business -- providing jobs and a support to our economy for decades and decades to come.
   The delay of the medium-security facility will soon be forgotten, I suspect. 2008 promises to be an exciting year: all the political intrigue of a presidential election year, the Olympics, Jacoby Ellsbury's first full year in the Majors. Our long-awaited pool (doesn't it look magnificent on the hill?) will be opening within days. The Harriman Building is going up in downtown Madras, and other commercial projects are also planned -- though we in Madras have come to learn that until foundations are poured, we won't believe it.
   Even with the big medium-security facility staying dark for a few extra months, we'll be just fine, in the long run.
   To all our readers, have a Happy New Year. May 2008 bring great news to all the people and communities of Jefferson County.