By Mitchell Willetts
ONTARIO – A new bill allowing parts of Malheur County to act more independently from the state in favor of its economic interests recently passed unanimously the Oregon Legislature.
By establishing a state economic advisory board, comprised of locals who know the issues, legislators hope to make Malheur County more economically competitive against a business-friendly Idaho.
As the regional authority on economic development, the board will work with policymakers on adjusting state rules and regulations, particularly regarding land use.
The new seven-member board will also receive $5 million from the state for projects and businesses that it believes will best benefit the local economy.
This board will be looking out for the economic interests of the newly outlined East Oregon economic zone, which encompasses Vale, Nyssa, Ontario, Willowcreek, Brogan, and surrounding areas within 20 miles of the Idaho border, and 10 miles southwest of Vale.
At this point, no board has been formed, and no specific objectives have been laid out. State Rep. Cliff Bentz, an author of the bill, believes the board will likely try to change land use and environmental regulations to more closely match Idaho. Regulations like these can drive up the price of doing business, and drive away potential employers.
“Some regulations may apply better to populated areas like Portland, Eugene and Salem, but they don’t apply well at all to rural areas, and they really don’t apply well when implemented immediately adjacent to Idaho,” Bentz said.
Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, hopes the new board can tip the scales less sharply in favor of Idaho.
“It’s a big thing for us to lower the cost for businesses to develop,” Brown said. It’s tough competing with a border state where the cost of doing business is much lower. “At least we know there’s a mechanism for addressing the economic disadvantages that we deal with here.”
Ron Verini, Ontario’s mayor, said his faith in the Capitol has been renewed since hearing of the bill’s success.
“This is a perfect example of the state government working for the best interests of everyone,” Verini said. “We always felt like we were a little out of the awareness of the legislature from time to time.”
Malheur County has some of the highest rates of poverty in the state, with the majority centered in Ontario and Vale. Kit Kamo, director of Snake River Economic Development Alliance, believes the bill is a hopeful tonic for the area’s impoverished.
Better regulations means more business and, opportunity. This means more employment, better schools, a stronger community, she said.
Like Verini, she finally feels Salem is making time for small town woes.
“The state originally had some one size fits all legislation,” Kamo said.
She has faith the new board will “look at land use issues, and a lot of other things that have kept our community from growing and being more prosperous.”
House Bill 2012, or the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Act, made it through the House 59-0 and the Senate 30-0.
The bill was drafted in February, a collaboration between Bentz and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
Bentz credits much of the bipartisan bill’s success to Kotek, who after visiting eastern Oregon last summer, has been a strong proponent ever since.
“She supported me in every way getting this bill drafted, refined and ultimately funded,” Bentz said.
Kotek emphasizes that the plan has always been to put the tools in the hands of east Oregon and to step out of the way.
“Our goal all along was to provide additional resources so people in the community can come up with strategic efforts to compete with Idaho,” Kotek said.
Despite the consistent support, Bentz wasn’t always confident the bill would pass. That was especially true after the success of a transportation package that allocated $26 million to a rail project in Malheur County.
The economic development legislation initially called for $10 million in lottery funding, but in the end, Bentz and Kotek got $5 million in general funds.
“Five million dollars for Malheur County is a big deal,” Kotek said. “My expectation is that we’re going to get the best, capable people sit on the commission. They’re going to be strategic and thoughtful about how they spend that money.”
Bentz is pleased with the result as well, he said.
“I think it’ll tell the people of Ontario, Vale, Nyssa, this area, that the state understands the challenge Idaho presents,” Bentz said. “This bill is a reflection of that understanding.”