Local government

Malheur County gives visiting lawmakers a sense of the local economy and challenges

ONTARIO – The tour of Malheur County by a group of state lawmakers last week proved to be a success but the real impact probably won’t be visible until the next legislative session.
The tour, sponsored by state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, included seven legislators who represent diverse areas of Oregon.
The goal of the tour, said Findley, was to familiarize the lawmakers with the unique challenges – economically and culturally – Malheur County faces by its geographic location next to Idaho.
“I have to educate them on the border. The more people who understand our issues, the better,” said Findley.
The tour included state Reps. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, Ken Helm, D-Washington County along with state Sens. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, Lew Frederick, D-Portland, Bill Hansell, R-Athena, Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.
The tour stretched over two days – Aug. 23 and Aug. 24 – and included a briefing from Shawna Peterson, the executive director of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, a trip to the reload center construction site north of Nyssa, a public meet-and-greet session at Treasure Valley Community College and a tour of the proposed Grassy Mountain Mine south of Vale.
The Aug. 23 briefing by Peterson covered the background of the board, its purpose and explained local economic development data.
Peterson also talked about the border board’s advocacy in past legislative sessions. During the last segment of the briefing Peterson described the board’s various grant and loan programs and incentives.

“I think it was an excellent group of legislators who were very engaged and generally interested in the work we are doing,” said Peterson.
The board was created in 2017 and offers a range of grant and loan programs.
For example, the Scott Fairley Memorial Edge Grant offers up to $25,000 to those who can demonstrate economic development through innovative and creative solutions.
The board also offers grants in workforce training – up to $100,000 – and a $100,000 improvement planning subsidy for local governments within the border region.
The legislators also met with Ontario Police Chief Michael Iwai.
“I basically provided them with stats and it really spins around the catastrophic mess we have experienced as a result of Measure 110. The measure basically decriminalized drugs and, as I told the senators, it really impacted our ability to provide services,” said Iwai.
Measure 110 was passed by Oregon voters in 2020. It reclassified personal and non-commercial drug possession offenses.
“This was to reduce penalties for substance abuse users and redirect money away from law enforcement and schools so we could build treatment facilities to get folks help. To date, not one treatment facility has been built,” said Iwai.
Iwai said he felt the lawmakers listened. He said he also told them if the money has not been allocated “please return it back to the cities so that local governments can put those resources where we need them.”
“They liked that idea. They don’t know where the bottleneck is occurring,” said Iwai.
At the tour of the reload center site, lawmakers listened to Findley and Grant Kitamura, general manager and part owner of Baker & Murakami Produce Co. in Ontario, laud the possibilities of the facility. Kitamura is also president of the Malheur County Development Corp., a nonprofit company overseeing the reload project.
At Treasure Valley Community College session on Tuesday night, Hansell said he felt the tour was encouraging.
“I like it when the community comes together and starts working on solutions and when the Legislature can be part of helping them,” said Hansell.
Hansell said he was especially impressed with the border board concept and saw it as a great example of local people finding local solutions to problems.
“When Salem dictates the solutions and how to do it, all too often it doesn’t work well,” said Hansell.
Fredrick said the tour allowed lawmakers to gather crucial information.
“This helps us to not only tell the story but tell the story well,” he said.
Gorsek said the tour was “new and refreshing.”
“Coming to different parts of the state we get to learn about those communities,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $7.50 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.