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Contracting idea brings out workers

The Baker School Board’s Tuesday night work session took on a holiday air accented by the red sweaters, blouses and shirts of about 20 members of the district’s classified staff.

Bus drivers, cooks and maintenance workers and paraprofessionals turned out for a presentation by Victor Musial, the Oregon School Employees Association’s director of field operations. Musial traveled to Baker City to give the association’s perspective of contracting services currently provided by district employees.

“We were there in support of what Victor was presenting to the board,” said Ruth Woodworth, a Baker Middle School librarian and president of the Baker Chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association. “We wanted to show the faces of the people affected by contracting out.”

Musial told the board that the association had developed a PowerPoint presentation to address the issue after losing hundreds of jobs across the state to contracting.

“InSource Oregon was designed to educate people up front,” he said. “Everybody’s a stakeholder.”

Entries sought for Entrepreneur of the Year awards

The Northeast Oregon Economic Development District is seeking nominations for the second-annual Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

The awards give Baker, Union and Wallowa county residents the chance to recognize entrepreneurs or business owners who have contributed to the vibrancy of the community, said Lisa Dawson, NOEDD executive director.

 “Entrepreneurs add value and vitality to our communities with no guarantee of emotional or monetary payoff,” Dawson said. “We are devoted to offering citizens the opportunity to show their appreciation to entrepreneurs.”

Julie Mullen, project coordinator, said a winner will be chosen from each of the three counties.

Debi Bainter, executive director for the Baker County Chamber of Commerce, said the 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year award for Baker County will be presented at the chamber’s Jan. 17 awards banquet, along with legacy awards, Business of the Year and other awards.

Snow business slow

Ski area, local businesses banking on a blizzard

It looks like a winter wonderland on the drive to Ski Anthony Lakes, but the snow isn’t deep enough to open the ski runs. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Those lyrics from a traditional Christmas song reflect the hopes of Ski Anthony Lakes staff and ski shop owners in Baker City whose sales are lagging due to lack of snow.

Last year was a good year, with enough snow at Ski Anthony Lakes, the resort in the Elkhorn Mountains about 35 miles northwest of Baker City, to open runs Thanksgiving weekend.

But with snow slower to arrive this year, Bill Junilla, the resort’s general manager, said he’s now hoping for enough snow to open on Dec. 13.

“We’ve got 10 inches of snow on top right now, and there’s some storms and colder weather forecast this weekend and into next week, so we’re shooting for a Dec. 13 opening,” Junilla said during a Wednesday interview at the ski resort.

The National Weather Service’s seven-day forecast for the Elkhorns calls for snow showers on Sunday, then a chance of snow, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent, through Thursday.

Junilla and Perry Batten, the new mountain manager at Ski Anthony Lakes, said they’re eager see the empty chairs on the idle ski left filled once again with skiers riding from the base elevation of 7,100 feet — highest among Oregon ski areas — to the upper runs which top out at 8,000 feet.

Ash Grove Cement Co. weathers economic storm

Demand for cement drops, but production shift helps Durkee plant

Ash Grove Cement’s plant in Durkee is one of Baker County’s larger private employers. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
Despite plunging demand for cement due to the nationwide housing slump and global economic downturn, the Ash Grove Cement Co. plant in Durkee is benefitting from a shift in production from an older plant in Idaho.

Terry Kerby, manager of Ash Grove’s Durkee plant about 25 miles southeast of Baker City, said production of clinker material used to make cement is being shifted from the Inkom, Idaho, plant to Durkee.

That shift in production will help keep the Durkee plant running closer to its optimum capacity and keep the plant’s 116 workers on the payroll earning base pay of $19 to $26 an hour, or $32 to $40 per hour with benefits, Kerby said.

Most of those workers live in Baker County, with a smaller number commuting from neighboring Malheur County.

Numbers back up local perception about reports of economic recession

Media reports citing recession have risen to unprecedented volume during past three years

Baker County business owners criticized the national media last week for a barrage of reports which some contend is contributing to a decline in consumer and business confidence, and deepening the recession.

 Numbers compiled from a Google Internet search for the words “economic recession” lend credence to the concerns raised by Baker City business owners Marilyn Shollenberger of Marilyn’s Music; Denzil Robbins of Robbins Farm Equipment; Ted Hausotter of Natural Structures; Ryan Chaves of Kicks Sports Wear; and others, including Jake Jacobs, business retention specialist with the Baker City and County economic development staff.

Local merchants say economy’s demise greatly exaggerated

So far, business owners say, Baker County has avoided the worst effects of the national economic downturn

Ryan Chaves, owner of Kicks Sports Wear in Baker City, holds a Christmas ornament that shows the building where his business is located. Chaves contends businesses can thrive even during recessions if they stock merchandise that local customers want. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
The recession of 2008 appears to be more talk than substance, according to some local business owners.

“Baker City is really fortunate in that we haven’t been hit near as hard as bigger communities because we have that home town feeling. We try to help each other,” said Ken Gross, manager of the Home Furnishings Liquidator store in Baker City.

While sales are down a little this fall, Gross said business at the furniture store always drops off this time of year and then picks up again between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“A lot of people in this community own their own businesses or work for locally owned businesses,” Gross said.

Building a new wood products industry

A $2 million grant could create new markets for Baker County private forest owners

A $2 million grant is breathing life into planning for a new sustainable wood products industry in Baker County capable of providing income for woodland owners and low-cost power, heat, wood pellets and firewood to the community.

During a meeting of Baker County Small Woodlands Association Thursday, Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources, presented a preliminary report and recommendations for using the anticipated $2 million in grant money to help fund development of a wood-fired gasification plant, a wood pellet mill and firewood production.

The preliminary cost estimate for all three options totals about $9 million.

Payments to woodland owners who supply the material are projected at about $1 million per year, based on a price of $25 per green ton for wood delivered to a site in Baker City, plus a $10 tax credit per green ton for the renewable energy portion of the projects.

Baker City manager touts solid financial shape

Steve Brocato will go over the city’s books with the 14-member budget board on Thursday evening

The city of Salem’s general fund is more than 10 times the size of Baker City’s.

Yet at $1 million apiece, each city has about the same size ending-fund balance — the city’s savings account.

That’s an example of the message — conservative budgeting leads to good results — that Baker City Manager Steve Brocato wants the Budget Board to hear Thursday when the board, which is composed of the seven city councilors and seven appointed members, meets for its fall budget update.

The public meeting begins at 6 p.m. in council chambers at Baker City Hall, 1655 First St.

So far, recession skips Baker

Despite dire economic forecasts in the national and global financial sectors, job creation is up and unemployment is down in Baker County, making the 2008 recession seem tame, so far, compared to some past recessions, according to the November Eastern Oregon Labor Trends report.

While job losses typically pile up during a recession, so far in 2008 the total number of people employed in nonfarm jobs is up slightly in Baker County compared to 2007, which was a record year for job expansion in the county, according to Jason Yohannan, regional economist at the Oregon Employment Division’s La Grande office, and author of Eastern Oregon Labor Trends report.

St. Elizabeth is in the black

Hospital turned a profit for the first time in awhile

St. Elizabeth Health Services turned a profit during the previous fiscal year, one of the few times the hospital’s been in the black the past seven years.

The hospital’s annual report for the fiscal year ending June 30 shows net income of $126,350 on revenues of $26,538,017 and expenses totaling $26,411,667.

St. Elizabeth’s governing board president Bob Moon said there are at least two reasons for the hospital’s improved financial performance.

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