Shifting the focus to rural
Needs of rural Oregon become a top priority for Business Oregon
Economic development is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Rural areas in particular face challenges and situations not replicated in urban areas, but even within those regions, needs are different.
The state’s economic development department—Business Oregon—and its director Chris Harder kept that in mind when crafting the 2018-2022 Business Oregon Strategic Plan, which maps out a course of action for the agency. That course contains priorities and strategies developed to specifically address the shifting economic landscape, changing demographics, and unique strengths of Oregon’s industries, businesses, and entrepreneurs.
“Oregon has diverse and distinct regions that dictate a regional approach to economic development,” says Harder. “Our strategic plan is built with this in mind.”
The yearlong process of developing the plan began with a fact-finding mission that identified the most pressing economic development challenges confronting the state of Oregon. Not surprisingly, rural Oregon topped the list. Nearly all of Oregon’s recent growth has been in metro areas, and over the last 15 years, employment in urban Oregon grew 12 percent, while remaining flat in rural Oregon.
As a result, for the first time, the Business Oregon Plan explicitly identifies the needs of rural areas as one of its top five priorities, which it describes as “cultivate rural economic stability.”
“Sustainable rural development is vital to the economic, social, and environmental viability of Oregon,” says Kathleen Flanagan, program officer for Community Economic Development at The Ford Family Foundation. “Calling out the needs of rural in Business Oregon’s strategic plan is a critical step in working towards a more inclusive economy in which all Oregonians share in the benefits of economic growth.”
“The rural-urban divide is real,” Harder says, “but it’s also important to hone in on why those things are happening. Not all rural communities are in decline; some are thriving, so we know it’s not just a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Business Oregon identified four strategies to support its rural priority:
- Enhance local economic development capacity in distressed rural communities
- Promote an environment that supports entrepreneurship and small business growth
- Expand business development to include non-traded sector companies and organizations; and
- Connect rural communities to urban markets through targeted infrastructure investments.
One of the agency’s first steps in this area was to increase the number of regions from nine to 12 to reflect rural diversity, and then hire regional development officers to staff them. “These people live and work in those regions, and are intended to be point people for the local community trying to engage with us on infrastructure and business enterprises,” Harder says. “It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve had so many development officers out in the field, and that’s a new shift for us that is very important.”
For Melisa Drugge, the Eastern Oregon regional development officer, the recent change meant she went from 10 counties to serving four. “It basically broadens the categories I address, but shrinks the areas I do that in,” she says. “Now I feel like I can get involved at a level where I can add value and not just give referrals and info by email.”
“I think it was bold for our agency to say we know this area is not densely populated but we need more people doing good work because there is less capacity.”
Drugge, who also helps support the entire network of regional officers, has always worked in the field, and she knows the value of providing skilled assistance at the local level. A lot of her work has been with businesses in the unmanned aerial systems industry. One of Oregon’s three FAA-approved UAS (unmanned aircraft system) ranges is in Pendleton; the other two are in Warm Springs and Tillamook. “I work directly with the Pendleton test range on projects relating to recruiting companies here, as well as the best way to market Oregon to more businesses in this field,” she says. “It’s a fast-growing industry, and Oregon businesses want to be a part of it.”
Harder says the next step to supporting rural communities is to build the capacity of the regional offices. “Our business finance teams do a lot of work around loans and grants,” he says, “and we are starting to staff those functions regionally as well.”