Growing concern over the long and uneven nature of the economic recovery marked the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit held Monday in Portland.

Elected, business and community leaders were thankful the state economy is finally beginning to climb out of the depths of the Great Recession. by: TRUBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, left, and Jeff Merkley, right, discussed the need for bipartisanship at Mondays Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit in Portland. They were interviewed by John Carter, chair of the plan and Schnitzer Steel.

Among other things, many of the speakers noted the growing importance of the high tech sector in Oregon’s economy. A report released during the summit noted that information communication technology companies in Oregon are now growing faster than the state and national economies. They currently account for around 58,000 jobs in 3,000 companies — many based in Washington County — with annual payrolls of $6 billion.

The study was commissioned by the Oregon Business Council, the Technology Association of Oregon and Oregon State University.

“High tech companies have led Oregon out of the Great Recession,” said Keith Larson, Intel Capital vice president.

But the leaders also expressed concern that statewide incomes are still below the national average, and noted that rural Oregon is largely being left out of the recovery.

“We are seeing the Portland metropolitan region doing better, but our partners in the rural parts of the state are really struggling economically and we need to help them,” said Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance.

A new focus of the plan revolved around the need to reduce Oregon’s poverty rate, which at 17.2 percent is still above the national average.

“We are now creating jobs, but too many of them are low-wage jobs,” said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The annual summit was organized by the Oregon Business Council, an association of more than 40 top business executives. Founded in 1985, the council hosts a business forum every year to discuss and update the council’s strategy for promoting economic growth, called the Oregon Business Plan. This one was held before the 2014 Oregon Legislature begins its 35-day session in February. Major speakers included Kitzhaber, Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and legislative leaders from the Oregon House of Representatives and Oregon’s Senate.

Also speaking at the business summit was Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes, founder and CEO of 3EStrategies. Hayes appeared on a panel at the end of the summit that discussed plans to reduce Oregon’s poverty rate to 10 percent by 2020.

Three key strategies in the plan are intended to continue and increase the economic recovery:

n Building the Columbia River Crossing and funding other needed infrastructure projects around the state. Several speakers expressed confidence the 2014 Oregon Legislature that begins in February will approve a state-led version of the replacement interstate bridge and freeway improvement project.

n Better methods of connecting educational opportunities to good-paying careers as part of the ongoing school reform initiatives being pushed by Kitzhaber. Additional funding for STEM classes — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — was a recurring theme.

n Increasing jobs in natural resource fields such as agriculture and forestry to help end rural unemployment and poverty. A new idea was generating support for food-producing businesses, much like the current focus on high tech, sportswear and sustainable development clusters.

Despite the unanimity at the summit, some of the proposals are controversial. For example, a number of environmental organizations oppose the Columbia River Crossing; taking more water out of the Columbia River for agriculture in eastern Oregon; and proposals for increasing logging.

Council leaders noted the Oregon Legislature mostly approved the major strategies in its last business plan, however. Those strategies called for reforming the Public Employee Retirement System, increasing funding for education and financing the Columbia River Crossing. All three were approved by legislators at the regular and special sessions in 2013.

“We had a good year, but our work is not done,” said John Carter, chairman of the board of Schnitzer Steel and the overseer of the Oregon Business Plan.

Summit leaders acknowledged that some factors were beyond their control. For example, Carter expressed concern about the extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C., that prevents Congress from increasing federal infrastructure investments. And others worried that Europe is either in recession or slowly recovering from it while China’s growth is off its historic pace, thus reducing the demand for Oregon-made products.

Nevertheless, the leaders pointed out that manufacturing is continuing to improve, and noted in particular that Intel is still investing heavily in its plants in Hillsboro.

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