Economic Development In Baker City
By Pat Caldwell
Safeguarding successful local businesses while simultaneously focusing on potential leads regarding firms outside the area are the two key ingredients to success for Greg Smith, Baker County economic development director.
“Our primary focus is on assisting existing business owners in the county,” Smith said this week.
Smith said adopting a practical method to the effort to stimulate the local economy is also critical.
“What we are trying to do is to reach out to those small companies that would be a good fit to relocate into the county. What we are trying to be is realistic in our approach,” he said.
For any small community in Eastern Oregon the management of expectations regarding economic development has been a focal point since the 1980s. While a scenario that includes a big company building a multi-million dollar factory that offers several hundred jobs is an ideal, the reality is that those types of opportunities are rare, Smith said.
“It will be difficult to attract a 150- to 500-person company to Baker County,” Smith said. “There is a perception among the public that you need to go find that 250-person company that will come into your community and will pay living wage jobs and be clean and I’d love to find that company. But there are just not a lot of those types of companies out there so what we have to do is be realistic.”
Several challenges that are not exclusive to Baker County also impede a widespread economic revival in many areas of the region.
For one, Smith said, many firms are playing a cautious hand regarding the perceived economic turnaround since the Great Recession.
“Right now very few major companies are moving,” he said. “A lot of companies are hunkered down and still waiting to see what the economy will do.”
Smith said the wary attitude of many firms is a regional condition.
“Whether you are in Baker City or the Port of Portland, that is a struggle we are all having to deal with,” he said
Still, Smith said there are some hopeful signs that a widespread, robust economic turnaround may be on the horizon.
“We are starting to see business loosen up a little bit. But they (firms) are not making those big decisions yet,” he said.
One key reason for the cautious attitude of many firms is the inability to access capital, Smith said.
Baker County Commissioner Fred Warner said fostering existing area businesses makes sense for the long-term economic health of the region.
“As we’ve learned over the years, you have to retain the businesses you have. They are the ones that help grow the workforce,’ he said.
Warner said, though, that while difficult, it is still feasible for Baker County to attract big employers.
“I do believe it is possible. It will take a unique company to do that. If you got that home run, then we’d have to worry about having a workforce that could handle that business,” he said.
Another challenge areas such as Baker County face, Warner said, is competition — just about every other area in the West is trying to kick-start economic development.
“Everyone along the I-84 corridor and rural America is struggling and doing the same we are doing — trying to get business to come here,” Warner said.
That’s why, he said, investing in established, area business is a good course for the future.
“We go back to we retain the business that are here. They are the ones that know the area, they are good employers and we want to help them. Those companies that are here, they’re not going to leave,” he said.
Baker City Mayor Richard Langrell said he hopes that small, efficient high-tech businesses choose Baker City.
“What I’d like to see happen, I think Baker would be the perfect place for a lot of those Internet companies,” Langrell said.
Langrell said Baker City’s quality of living is a huge asset.
“It’s the perfect place to live. Internet doesn’t care if you are in New York City or Sumpter, Oregon,” he said.
Baker City Manager Mike Kee said the city is always searching for business opportunities.
“We are constantly recruiting,” he said.
Yet he agreed with Smith that there are not a lot of regional business exploring new markets.
“It doesn’t seem like business are moving around a lot right now,” he said.
Kee also agreed that promoting local businesses first is critical.
“Quality of life, a freeway and a railroad that goes right through town, those are the things we focus on,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it is hard to keep businesses here but it is something you have to pay attention to all the time.”