Malheur County group considering how to get local economy going again

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown is a key member of the Malheur County Recovery Team, a group focused on helping the local economy after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

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VALE – Local elected and appointed leaders are working on a phased plan to kick start the local economy after state restrictions related to the coronavirus are modified.

The economic plan hinges on three key aspects – the creation of an economic coordinator position, a relief blueprint that relies on cash from federal and state sources, and a focus on helping local businesses return to normal operations, said Ontario City Manager Adam Brown.

Efforts to rebuild the local economy are intended to swing into place once the state eases restrictions. Those require Malheur County residents to stay home except for essential tasks and limited or closed businesses, schools and other institutions such as museums.

The Malheur Recovery Team consists of Brown, Andrea Testi, director of the Treasure Valley Community College Small Business Development Center, Ontario City Councilor Michael Braden, Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance; Dan Cummings, Ontario community development director; and John Breidenbach, chief executive officer of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

Brown said the team isn’t exclusive. Already, he said, the team reached out to the Nyssa and Vale city managers for their input and welcomes help from the community.

The Ontario City Council voted last week to allocate $30,000 for the economic coordinator slot and the local Poverty to Prosperity program has asked the Malheur County Court to provide another $40,000 for the position.

According to the letter, “the purpose of this program/position is to focus on securing support and funding for Malheur County residents and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate future support and funding opportunities to enhance the lives of the residents of Malheur County through improvements to its infrastructure, public health, educational offerings including vocational, agriculture and industry,”

Riley Hill, a Poverty to Prosperity board member and the mayor of Ontario, said the position is important so the county can latch on to federal or state relief funding expected in the months ahead.

“We know there will be at least $2 trillion come out and if we sit back on our hind end and let it take its course, we won’t get anything. We need to be finding out how we can get our hands on it,” said Hill.

Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, said he discussed the coordinator position with county commissioners last week. In a memo dated April 22, Smith said the court was receptive to the idea but wanted to know more about the scope of work and job description for the slot, the expected results and who would supervise the coordinator.

The county is holding off now about whether to help.

“There are so many unanswered questions that no one can make a decision on until they are answered,” said Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce.

The court considered the request on Wednesday, April 29, but tabled the idea because commissioners said their questions hadn’t been answered.

Other counties have already crafted and submitted to Gov. Kate Brown plans that blend health measures and business practices to allow greater freedom. Harney County officials worked with state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane and state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, to write a plan that fits the state’s requirements. Baker County officials submitted their plan last week.

Brown said the coordinator would function like a lobbyist who can “advocate at a higher level, the systems level, the local economy level, that can lobby in Washington and Salem for us.”

“It will help us adapt to the new economy,” said Brown.

Brown said the coordinator would be in place for 12 months.

“Originally when Andrea and I and Michael started talking, we were thinking very locally. When we started to engage other folks in the conversation they were like, you need to think broader in terms of what this will do, how it will shift the business environment,” said Brown.

Brown said his group decided the coordinator should operate countywide “because the governor is reopening everything through the counties,” he said.

Brown said the city already earmarked 14 projects that could be funded by COVID-19 relief money.

“The mayor pushed us to get them together,” said Brown.

Most of the projects are for infrastructure improvements – such as sewer, water and utilities – within economic developments zones in and around Ontario.

One of the biggest proposed projects is a $4.6 million extension of water and waste water services to industrial land between Southwest 18th Avenue and West Island Road south of Ontario. Another large project on the list is a $2.4 million expansion power, water, sewer, gas and fiber optic services to the Ontario airport.

“We don’t know which avenues the money will come through but the important thing is we have projects ready to go that would add value to the community,” said Brown.

The second part of the plan, is an ongoing effort to reach out to local business to help them recover from the impacts of the virus.

The business relief effort is coordinated through Testi’s office.

“We want them (local businesses) to get back to normal or find the new normal for them. We want to see them back open. We want to try to remove as many barriers as we can,” said Brown.

“We are calling as best we can, emailing every single business we can identify in the county to assess where they are and what their needs are,” said Testi.

Testi said as the group is compiling a data base of all businesses it contacts.

“We will work with people to get them to put together a reopening plan,” said Testi.

That reopening blueprint, she said, will focus on cash flow and whether businesses have “all the necessary sanitizing and protective equipment.”

“We want to get our businesses to start thinking about tomorrow,” said Testi.

As part of the state’s reopening requirements, said Testi, businesses will be required to “describe how they will maintain social distancing requirements.”

“Then how many people do they believe they can have in their businesses at any given time to maintain those distancing requirements. They are going to have to have personal protective equipment for employees and know how to use them and clean them,” said Testi.

Retailers will also need a plan to sanitize their stores, said Testi.

Testi said her office and the recovery team are “ready to help you and try to put together templates to help people through this.”

“We want the community to contact us. We are all ready to help. We want to dig in if people need help to complete applications or a business plan review, a social media presence – we want to help,” said Testi.

Those who seek assistance can contact Testi at 541-881-5761.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]