(The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)
By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — The assessment of many about the visit of Gov. Kate Brown last week was a simple one for officials and onion farmers: an appreciation for her presence but questions about what will happen in the future.
“Well, I feel good she took the time to come out and see us. But she made it clear that there were no funds available other than SBA (Small Business Administration) loans,” said Grant Kitamura, general manage of Murakami Produce Co. in Ontario.
Kitamura said Brown’s obvious concern regarding the damage across the county was sincere.
“Unfortunately, she couldn’t really help us. Everyone’s hands are tied financially at the state level. She did not bring a wheelbarrow or a pot of money,” he said.
Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation manager for Snake River Produce in Nyssa said while she was glad the governor toured the area, she is adopting a wait-and-see attitude regarding the future in terms of assistance.
“I am hopeful she will take what she heard and take it back to Salem and get the ball rolling. I think it is great she came out. But, you know, time will tell,” Cruickshank said.
Cruickshank said Snake River Produce lost three buildings it owned and three that it leased from the severe winter storms, leaving damage of more than $1 million.
“And our production is down and that has not been factored into that number,” she said.
Adrian onion farmer Brent Ishida said Brown’s visit was beneficial on one hand because it allowed area residents to share information on the storm damage.
“It was an opportunity to speak to her one-on-one. That is kind of a rare opportunity. She not only heard the concerns of people on damage but also numerous concerns about the agriculture industry and how to better our agriculture industry locally,” he said.
However, Ishida said he is hesitant regarding what will happen next.
“I guess I am not sure what any of the results of the meeting, of her being here, other than she heard and saw and it remains to be seen what will happen,” he said.
Nyssa onion farmer Garry Bybee echoed Ishida’s sentiments.
“My interpretation of the meeting was that they were sympathetic but they indicated the state had no money,” he said.
He said pledges to work with federal agencies – such as Federal Emergency Management Agency – to find assistance was welcome news but only over the long-term.
“Our problems are now. I didn’t see any near-term fix and I was disappointed in that,” he said.
Bybee said the clock on the 2017 harvest is already ticking.
“The question is whether we can get the stuff cleaned up to rebuild in time for this fall. To build these storages is expensive and time consuming,” he said.
Paul Skeen, president of Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said he felt the tour of the wrecked structures surprised Brown.
“It was an awakening for her. It is just real life when you see it and it was very shocking to her,” he said.
Skeen said he believes the governor is sincere.
“I think she is going to try to help us with what she can and I don’t know what that is,” he said.
Still, Skeen said the very presence of the governor was critical.
“We haven’t had a governor over here in a long time. The fact that she came was huge,” he said.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said at the joint press conference Friday afternoon between Brown and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was significant in terms of building a bridge of communication.
“Personally I think it was monumental these two governors talked face-to-face,” he said.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, helped arrange the visit by Brown and said her presence was important on different levels. For one, he said, the tour allowed the governor to see just how much damage the county suffered.
“Unless you bring someone over here to se this, words can’t describe it,” he said.
Another important point about the visit, he said, was it showed Brown was aware of the county’s challenges and eager to find solutions.
“I am happy she understands the seriousness of the situation we face. I want to hand it to the governor for responding so quickly,” he said.
He said he believes the governor wants to find answers for the residents of Malheur County impacted by the storms.
“I know she is very interesting in doing something,” he said.
Snake River Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Kit Kamo said Brown’s visit could help deliver assistance to the county in the future.
“It takes her leadership to get us to the next step with any potential help we might get from the federal level,” Kamo said.
Have a news tip? Email: [email protected] or call Pat Caldwell at (541) 473-3377.