'One or two jobs make a difference’
Grant County’s economic development director works to bring in more business to county
When Sally Bartlett was younger, her two biggest ambitions were to bake bread and write poetry. “I was never looking for a career,” she says today.
Nevertheless, she got one. Today, the Prairie City resident serves as economic development director for Grant County, a wide-open Eastern Oregon county with big goals: to provide a thriving place for its 7,500 residents to live and raise their families.
What does it take to build up a county’s economy? The same things that work in the kitchen: patience, time and constant tending. “When I first came, people didn’t understand that economic development is long term,” Bartlett says. “It doesn’t happen tomorrow. It’s 20 years. Sometimes that’s difficult, but you know, it’s one day at a time.
What does it take to build up a county’s economy? The same things that work in the kitchen: patience, time and constant tending.
“It’s time, research, tenacity, determination, cooperation and many, many calls and many, many emails.”
Bartlett works with county and state government as well as private sector partners to bring more businesses to the county. Grant County, with two people per square mile, is officially classified by the federal government as “frontier.”
Her work includes fostering interest in enterprise zones, helping small entrepreneurs gain a foothold in business, and finding ways to keep existing business doors open.
In 2010, a study completed by Bartlett and a group of Grant County residents helped Malheur Lumber Company fire up a biomass pellet plant. Grants she wrote helped several small businesses pay for research projects. An AmeriCorps volunteer whom Bartlett brought to Grant County developed the John Day Farmers Market.
A challenging economy
Still, Bartlett says, the area struggles.
Grant County sticks out on state charts with one of the highest unemployment rates, often several points higher than Oregon’s average. She says the continual loss of jobs has meant an exodus of whole swaths of the county’s population, which declined by more than 500 people between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census.
“We don’t have the middle group of people, 20- to 40-year-olds with families. You see holes because families move away,” she says. “If we can stop that drain, that’s an improvement.”
So, Bartlett plugs away at halting population and employment decline while still trying to add more jobs. It’s an uphill battle, but one Bartlett relishes. “One or two jobs make a difference to our economy. That’s why I love being here,” she says. “Little changes here have big impacts.”
Planning for the future while working with today’s obstacles helps Bartlett deal with Grant County’s economic uncertainty as well as her own job insecurity. Her position was funded for only six months when she was hired in 2007.
“Then they found funding for the next year, and every year since then we’ve figured it out,” she says. “It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to change careers right before the biggest recession in our country hit, but it was good for me. I’m of the mindset that nothing is secure.”
Respected by both men and women
Bartlett says the county population is an even split of men and women, and leadership positions reflect that division. “I have been well treated and respected by the men in leadership roles in the community, as well as the women. I think we have a good balance.”
Bartlett came to Grant County after administering nutrition programs for the state of Idaho for seven years. She grew up in Wyoming and has worked in Eastern Oregon before, but coming back to Oregon meant some adjustments.
“The two things I missed most when I got here were sidewalks and being able to go to the movies. But I’m still working with people to better themselves and become more sustainable,” she says. “It’s been a good trade.”
And every once in a while she has time to bake bread and pen prose.