EDITORIAL: Economic growth poses immediate Malheur County challenges

New jobs may soon come rolling into Malheur County by the hundreds. That will bolster the local economy, but challenges loom.

We seem to be on the cusp of significant industrial expansion. Not one but two mushroom companies are considering locating in or near Vale, creating hundreds of new jobs. The high-profile rail shipping center will create first construction jobs and then sustained employment. And then there is the gold mine southwest of Vale, again requiring first construction workers and then mine workers.

Together, that’s hundreds of new jobs. That would pour millions into the local economy in wages. Local governments, charities and local businesses all stand to benefit. The county would have a far more stable economy – perhaps stable enough to entice a bigger share of local young people to stay or return.

Yet the dreams of such expansion could crash into the reef of reality.

What’s the issue?

First, our local labor market doesn’t seem to have anywhere near enough people to fill hundreds of new jobs. Unemployment here is under 4 percent, which means a tight labor supply. Just ask any employer. There are people listed as unemployed and looking for work, but not enough to give existing employers much of a pool.

A new rail facility or mushroom plant or gold mine likely would attract people who already hold other jobs in Malheur County. People, of course, will go where wages and benefits are best. That could blow a hole in the work rosters at many local businesses. They, in turn, will have to search around for new bodies to put behind the desk, at the counter, or on the road.

So, we’re likely to have internal movement among employers, but that doesn’t add any bodies to the labor pool. To fill demand, we’ll have to draw new people to the area for work. In this region, that puts us in competition with hot job markets in Boise, Bend and other regional economic hubs. We’re clearly making Malheur County attractive for employers. Now, we’ll have to make it attractive for job seekers.

And that means confronting a persistent local issue: housing. Where would we put 100, 200 or 300 new employees and their families? The housing stock in Malheur County, particularly affordable family housing, is insufficient. We’ll need new homes and apartments in Vale, Nyssa, Ontario and elsewhere. City, county officials, and organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce should be taking a hard look at what’s available, what are anticipated needs, and what are the measures needed to encourage home construction.

At this point, those new employers aren’t even in the blueprint stage, so we have time. But that means we can take a reasoned, pragmatic path towards preparing Malheur County for the potential wave of new residents and new employees. We have to potential employers – and employees – that the community is aware of these challenges and is working to address them. — LZ