Nearly a decade of hard work to improve Oregon's economy has yet to turn this state into a modern-day economic miracle, but that doesn't mean those efforts were wasted or misdirected.
It was nine years ago that the Oregon Business Plan and its annual Leadership Summit were conceived. At the time, this state was in the midst of a recession that gave it one of the highest jobless rates in the nation - just over 8 percent. This week, when hundreds of business, political, education and labor leaders met at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland for the ninth yearly Leadership Summit, the state's unemployment rate was actually worse - just over 9 percent.
That one measurement is an indication not of the futility of the work being done by those involved with the Oregon Business Plan, but rather, of its importance. Despite all the economic initiatives launched in Oregon over the past nine years, this state has yet to reverse a downward slide that is affected not only by the global economy, but also by factors that are unique to Oregon.
Need for jobs should prevail
The backdrop for this year's Leadership Summit was the growing realization that Oregon isn't just suffering from the nation's economic malaise, but that it also trails other states in per capita income and in its ability to finance public services - such as education - that in turn will help the economy.
To reverse these trends, Oregon must confront a variety of issues, including its system of taxation, its ability to cultivate innovative companies, its land-use policies and its capacity to pay for new roads, bridges and other infrastructure. None of these topics are easily addressed - and the main value of the Oregon Business Plan is that it advances the idea that a solid economy is more important than political partisanship, more important than arguments between labor and business and more important than the divide between rural and urban Oregon.
At the Leadership Summit on Tuesday, Gov. John Kitzhaber, Oregon's two U.S. senators, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the state Legislature along with labor leaders and hundreds of business people all attended. At the very least, there is value in getting those people in the same room to discuss how to create more and better jobs in Oregon. But the Oregon Business Plan goes beyond discussion and has developed a specific agenda for boosting the state's economy, public finance and livability.
Don't lose sight of the whole state
Inherent in this plan is the recognition that Oregon will not succeed unless all of its regions are prosperous. Some of the initiatives that we find most important include:
• Actively managing Oregon public forests to improve forest health while also providing logs for rural mills and producing biomass for alternative energy. At present, public forests in Oregon are in severe danger for wildfires and disease unless trees are selectively thinned. Allowing such thinning will save the forests while also helping the economy.
• Making industrial land ready for new or expanding companies that offer high-wage jobs. Oregon has a shortage of good industrial land, and it must enlarge that inventory if it is to be in the running for the best industries.
• Pushing ahead with infrastructure improvements, including the Columbia River Crossing project to build a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver.
• Encouraging innovation in Oregon by investing in research centers and supporting Treasurer Ted Wheeler's idea of an Oregon Investment Act.
These are just a few of the recommendations from the Oregon Business Plan (find more online at oregonbusinessplan.org). For the most part, they are ongoing initiatives, or incremental steps toward the ultimate goal of higher incomes, better education and enhanced quality of life in Oregon.
Like almost everyone in this state, we wish Oregon's economy had made more progress in the past nine years. What's needed for a better outcome is continued collaboration - and a belief that a stronger economy will solve most of Oregon's problems.