Mara Kirby Slinker, co-owner of Kinney Brothers & Keel True Value Hardware in Ontario points to a diagram at her store outlining a snow load on a roof. Slinker said her store worked hard to provide needed supplies during a spate of winter storms that hit the local area in January.
(The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE —The string of severe winter storms that rolled over the county in recent weeks battered the local economy, triggering damage to the flow of commerce and income in costly ways likely to last for months.

The severity of the storms proved to be a shock for many.

“With the sequence of events, I don’t think anyone was prepared for this,” said Ontario Mayor Ron Verini.

Only a few weeks removed from a series of epic storms, officials, businesses and residents are just now conducting assessments on the damage.

Arguably the hardest hit was the local onion industry. Roofs over storage sheds and packing lines collapsed while road closures interfered with shipping.

Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said the local economy will suffer from the storms.

“Malheur County is an agriculture area where how goes the onion and cattle, so goes the economy of the county,” he said.

Yet it wasn’t just the onion industry that was stung by winter. Businesses and homeowners also suffered.

By late last week, the tally of destroyed and damaged structures across the region was well over 100, according to Malheur County Emergency Services Director Rob Hunsucker.

Retailers saw varying impacts.

“We are not getting as many customers but our sales are up because they are stocking up,” said Logan Hamilton, the owner of Logan’s Market in Vale.

Farmers Supply Coop chief financial officer Angela Smith said her firm encountered a climb in sales with its convenience stores, especially in places like Weiser. There the loss of the town’s only grocery – Ridley’s – forced consumers to go somewhere else to buy items such as milk and ice melt.

“But we’ve also had a lot of extra expenses getting extra help. It (the winter storms) cost us overall,” Smith said.

Hamilton said while sales may be up, he, too, faced added difficulties.

“We’ve had a double-digit sales increase the first month of the year. But it has been more challenging because we have to keep a close eye on the roof, the parking lot,” he said.

For Kinney Brothers & Keele True Value store in Ontario, the winter storms translated into an extraordinary workload.

“We turned 16 trucks in nine days and we were buying complete semis of product,” co-owner Mara Slinker said.

Slinker said as the snow came down, more and more people arrived at the store for supplies such as shovels and roof rakes.

“We had lines before we could even get to the door,” Slinker said. “In one weekend alone, we sold over 15 tons of ice melt and over 400 shovels and 91 roof rakes.”

Yet while the winter helped ignite sales, Slinker said her store was focused on helping the community.

“It is all about the community right now. We want our community to be taken care of,” Slinker said.

Some restaurants were not immune to the weather either.

In Ontario, Denny’s assistant manager Keena Stewart said winter’s wrath hit hard.

“We were slower than normal. Just because all of the snow and people not going out,” she said.

Even when Interstate 84 was shut down, businesses did not pick up.

“What happens when the road is closed in Ontario, a lot of people don’t go past Caldwell,” Stewart said.

In Vale, Miracle Eatery owner Tracy Landreth was forced to close for several days during the height of the winter offensive.

“We were closed because I couldn’t get out of my front door because there was too much snow,” Landreth said.

Landreth said the storms definitely had an economic impact on her business.

“It is really, really hard. I did about 10 percent of the sales I did last January. That is a big bite,” Landreth said.

John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce executive director, believes the region will feel the economic impact from the storms for a long time. He likened winter’s influence on the economy to a massive lay-off by a large firm.

“I would say it comes to the same thing where if we have a company that has 1,000 employees and they lay off 10 percent of their workforce. We feel that. The trickle down of these storms is huge for our economy,” he said.

The final impact, though, remains uncertain.

“I think it is one of those things that will take years to figure out the costs. There are still all of those unknowns,” he said.

Jon Mills, Farm Service Agency farm loan manager in Malheur County, said officials are still accessing losses on the agriculture side about economic impact can be made. Whether the winter weather affected employment across the region is difficult to determine, said Chris Rich of the Oregon Employment Department.

A business might only be closed for a few days, he said, and employees decide not to file an unemployment claim. Or they might file a claim but drop it.

“Whether they actually get paid on that claim is a different story,” he said. That’s because those employees might already be back to work before the claim becomes active.

Verini said the snow did one thing very well: it kept people indoors which eliminated cash flow in the local economy.

“It devastated the economy. People were not going out necessarily to the restaurants and shopping,” he said.

Verini agreed with Breidenbach regarding how long it will take before the full impact of the damage is confirmed.

“We will see the impact of this six, nine months down the road,” he said.