Malheur County’s economic development chief racks up the miles to grow economy

Greg Smith, Malheur County’s economic development director, once wanted to be a coach but now he advises community leaders about how best to attract and keep businesses. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – It is 4 p.m. on a Friday and Greg Smith, as usual, is on the road.

Malheur County’s economic development director is a frequent traveler on eastern and central Oregon’s highways, and the 48-year-old Heppner resident said he doesn’t see many days off. He gets about two a month, he said.

“A lot of time on Saturday I will be structuring a loan for someone on Tuesday,” said Smith.

Yet he said he wouldn’t trade his job.

“It is so rewarding. The work our company does impacts real people,” said Smith.

In his job, Smith is one of the important people behind the $26-million-dollar rail facility scheduled to be built outside Nyssa. He essentially is the county’s job finder, building relationships with companies across the nation to attract them to the area. He is also a state representative, serving a district that encompasses Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties.

“I live on the freeway,” said Smith.

His company, Gregory Smith and Co., employs 12 at offices in Heppner, Boardman, Hermiston, La Grande, Baker City, Vale and Burns.

“I love working with our city councils and our county commissioners. For the most part these are good, good folks and became elected because they wanted to make a difference. That is very gratifying to me,” said Smith.

Smith has created a record of success but he never intended to become an economic development director. He entered the field by chance and because he was broke.

After attending Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Smith chose Portland State University to get a master’s degree in business administration.

“I was literally four classes away from graduating but I had to get a job. I saw this position in Heppner and for an economic development specialist. I had no idea what that job was but I needed a job so I applied,” said Smith.

Smith didn’t get hired initially. But the first individual picked by the city traveled to Heppner, looked around and decided the post wasn’t for him.

Smith got the job. He lacked experience but not drive and Smith said he soon realized he could make an impact working in economic development.

“I knew if I worked hard and helped communities, I could eventually become a big fish in a little pond and that was attractive to me, the notion I could make a difference in the community,” said Smith.

Smith said his career offered plenty of lessons. One of the biggest surprises, he said, was the lack of expertise in economic development within the region.

“It shocked me. County after county hires people to do economic development that don’t know the programs,” said Smith.

Smith said economic development can be complicated. To succeed an individual must understand the tools available.

“You need to know the land use laws and how processes work,” said Smith.

That knowledge gap regarding economic development has hurt the region, Smith said.

“Part of the reason eastern Oregon’s economy has struggled is because we have all these good people who want to do good things but don’t know how the program works,” said Smith. Smith said successful economic development takes an infinite amount of patience.

There are other difficulties with the job, said Smith.

“One of the challenges is managing expectations,” Smith said.

A good example, he said, is the rail reload facility in Malheur County.

“There are many pieces that go into putting that project together – financing, land use, permitting and so much of that no one ever sees. It is really like an iceberg. You have all of this work that occurs under the surface,” said Smith.

Smith said the best part of his 25-year career has been assisting small business owners get on their feet and succeed.

“But it is also gratifying to help someone see why maybe they should not go into business. I get people who come into our office with a nest egg that took 40 years to build and I have to share with them the reality of entrepreneurship,” said Smith.

Smith said he has never told anyone no but he believes it is his obligation to point out all of the pros and cons of going into business.

The Gresham native said despite the fact he spends large chunks of time on the road, he works hard to take time for his family. He admitted that can sometimes take some juggling with his schedule and shifting meetings but he said it is worth it.

“We try to integrate as a family. Every chance we get to intergrate into the family, we do and my kids know that their activities take priority,” said Smith.

Smith and his wife, Sherri, have five children – four sons and a daughter. When he thinks about life’s triumphs he focuses on his family. Smith said one of his proudest moments was when one son won a district championship crown in wrestling.

“He is kind of a non-athlete who for two and half years dedicated his life to becoming better at something. When I watched him win the tournament in Crane, well, that was where I got to watch a young man succeed at something hard,” said Smith.

Smith said one of his proudest moments was when he was selected to be an Eagle Scout at 14. He said if he had not landed the economic development gig, he probably would have become a coach.

“I always envisioned myself being a football coach. I love working with kids and I like helping to educate,” said Smith.

Smith, 49, said he is isn’t sure how long he will do economic development. “In about five years I will reflect on what I want to do with the rest of my life. Maybe I will go teach or coach. I have never been driven by money. I like to take things from scratch and build them,” said Smith.

Smith said he would like to be remembered as someone who cared about his community, both at home and across the region.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.