Crook County’s economic outlook

Economic development luncheon highlights the ups and downs of the economy
During the Third Annual Prineville Economic Development Luncheon, keynote speaker Graham Slater from the Oregon Employment Department highlighted an all-too-familiar financial picture for Crook County.
   The community still maintains the highest unemployment rate in Oregon. The decline of the manufacturing and construction industry hit Prineville particularly hard. Although, job growth remains slow statewide, rural communities are facing the slowest recovery.
   “I hate to end on a negative note,” he told the audience of local government and business leaders as he concluded his message, “but that is sort of reality.”
   Crook County Economic Development Manager Jason Carr acknowledged the struggles the community faces, but provided some cause for optimism as well.
   The luncheon coincided with the fifth anniversary of Prineville Economic Development. Consequently, Carr kicked off the Wednesday afternoon luncheon at Meadow Lakes Restaurant with a look at the economic highs and lows of the past five years. He pointed out how Crook County went from the tail end of the housing boom to the depths of the Great Recession to a point of renewed hope and optimism.
   “Who would have ever thought Prineville, Ore. would be home to Facebook and Apple?” he remarked. “I know even for me five years ago, that wasn’t something that was on my radar.”
   Carr added that other communities have taken notice of the way Crook County has attracted such high profile companies.
   “Prineville is the envy of a lot of communities across the state of Oregon,” he said.
   While that is the case, Slater pointed out that communities throughout the state face a slow recovery with a variety of challenges to overcome. He examined eight specific hurdles that counties – particularly rural ones like Crook County – still face as the economy recovers.
   When it comes to unemployment, for example, Slater told the audience that many people have lacked work for up to three years. He did say, however, that the situation has begun to improve, and explained what businesses look at when they consider hiring a person who has endured long-term unemployment.
   “The company is looking to see if they have done something useful,” Slater explained, “whether it was going back to school or volunteering for some non-profit or remodeling their house.”
   As people continue looking for work, employment growth has so far plodded along at a slow pace. Despite ongoing economic struggles statewide, Slater has seen improvement. Nevertheless, industries like manufacturing and construction, which took substantial hits, may not return to pre-recession levels for more than 10 years.
   “The end of the recession does not by any means imply that good times are back,” he said. “It just means we sort of hit the bottom (in June 2009) . . . and have started to crawl back.”
   Because manufacturing and construction face a long recovery, Slater said residents of Crook County and other rural communities will likely seek work in other industries. Because of this, he feels education and workforce training needs change to fit the need.
   “Should the training be a little better, or even a lot better connected to the jobs? Absolutely.”
   At the same time, Slater pointed out that training workers will not yet guarantee employment.
   “People sometimes ask me, is the big solution – the silver bullet – is it more training or is it more jobs?” he said. “Right now, the big problem is not enough jobs.”
   Slater said that the vast majority of businesses in Oregon remain reluctant to hire because of the uncertain future of the economy.
   “Businesses are being very cautious about hiring until they know that consumers are going to start spending money,” he said. “But consumers are being pretty cautious about spending until they feel confident that they jobs are secure.”
   Along with the challenges that hamper employment, Slater went on to point out that the recession has taken its toll on young people now entering the workforce. They now face lower wages with slower pay increases, as well as the potential for lower lifetime earnings.
   “Those people are missing out on so many really important parts of life,” he said. “What did we all do when we first had our job? We’re forming relationships, we’re forming networks, we’re learning a whole lot, we’re maybe getting our first or second promotions, we’re buying a brand new car for the first time, (or) we’re saving for a house.”
   Because of their stunted start, Slater said the younger generation might avoid purchasing the new car or the new home, which creates a trickle-down effect.
   “It affects all of us,” he said.
   The emphasis on economic challenges prompted one audience member to ask Slater what solutions he sees going forward. He could not provide a concrete answer.
   “I don’t think there are easy solutions,” he said. “Right now, I think the focus certainly is on getting the currently unemployed as ready as possible.”
   As the luncheon concluded, Carr again emphasized that despite the challenges Crook County and other Oregon communities face, the future for the local economy still shows promise. Because of ongoing efforts to diversify the economy and the addition of secondary education opportunities, he feels Crook County is more poised for success than other rural communities.
   “I think we have been able to start setting that foundation to deal some these issues,” he said. “Now, we are still a long way from getting there (a full economic recovery), but I think the foundation has been set. There are a lot of rural communities in this state and across the Northwest that have not been as fortunate as we have been, to see this kind of economic activity.”