EDITORIAL: Malheur County, time for bold move to rescue our economy

A sign posted at the entrance to the Project DOVE boutique in Ontario points to the reason for the thrift shop’s closure. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

In these dark days, it may seem hard to imagine what life will be like when we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. In Malheur County, though, we should be planning now for that day. Our economy is slipping into a shambles and the work to rebuild it must begin now.

The economic damage is likely to get more severe. Many businesses have turned off the lights, either because customers disappeared or they were forced to. Others limp along with reduced staff, reduced hours and hopes to cover the bills. When the time comes to open up the economy, we will have lost employers, we will have lost workers, and we will have lost some of the optimism in place just weeks ago.

So, when the lights come back on, what are we going to do? The smartest, most experienced people in Malheur County need to anticipate that day and seize opportunity. It seems, at first blush, that a phased yet focused rebuilding plan is needed.

Start with the employers that are still running. Let’s figure out what they need – business by business, company by company – to get back to full operations. Finding employees will be crucial, and sorting through an avalanche of applications will be a challenge. And then there will be supply chain issues. Once America goes back to work, every business will be calling suppliers. We could end up with panic buying like the one that wiped out stocks of toilet paper.

Then let’s help businesses that closed put up the “Open” sign. Again, business by business, what does each place need? Now, during this forced pause, may be an excellent time for companies to consider their own plans – and whether this is the moment to reinvent, expand or otherwise change operations.

Malheur County ought to help those businesses see opportunity, for the local economy, indeed the U.S. economy, will never look like it did just 30 days ago.

And finally, what are the opportunities for us in Malheur County? If there was ever a time to think big, think grand, this is it. We should anticipate that state and federal governments for months will pump money out to get the economy going. So, we couldn’t afford extensive, immediate broadband in the county before … What about now? What industry has been on the economic wish list and stayed there because there weren’t roads or sewers or the pieces that put a company up and running?

To do any of this, requires some bold action now – not later, when every other county and city is scrambling to get going. We have many assets to help with this, including the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region Board, Poverty to Prosperity, the Small Business Development Center at Treasure Valley Community College, our local chambers and effective city leaders.

What this calls for, though, is one skilled, talented person to manage and direct this effort. The community needs to lean into this, supporting the recruitment and hiring of the best talent from anywhere who has the leadership and business skills to get things done. We don’t need endless meetings of people from various groups sitting around a table (when that’s even allowed again) to talk politely and then drift off with no action. As a community, we should be prepared to spend for this new position.

The money is there, if Malheur County commissioners can be encouraged to take decisive action and not dither. The county’s own economic development budget is the place to turn. The county budgeted $40,000 this year in its economic fund for “travel.” Another $40,000 is budgeted for “promotions.” Take that $80,000 for the new job. There is $75,000 sitting there for “technical assistance.” Take that. Then dip into the contingency fund within that budget – this is separate from the county’s general emergency fund. The county has $209,000 tucked away in that economic fund that isn’t obligated.

And then the harder choice to make. The county currently has two contracts with Greg Smith’s company, totaling $15,000 a month. Split this. Smith should be designated to focus exclusively on the Treasure Valley Reload Center, a job he’s repeatedly discussed as one of multiple moving parts and changing demands. Let him keep the $6,000 contract and keep another $4,000 from his original contract. That would give Smith’s company $10,000 a month to focus just on bringing the rail center on board – the same sum he charged Linn County officials for nearly identical work.

This move frees up $5,000 a month to pour into the Malheur County economic recovery program. We would expect other partners to pitch in too.

And let’s not dither over this for weeks. Let’s be ambitious. Let’s be focused. Let’s move money to make it happen – now. We can make Malheur County move again once the virus eases its grip. And we have a chance to achieve progress only dreamed of in years past. ­– LZ