By Pat Caldwell
Recently Baker County Economic Development Director Greg Smith took a tour of Baker City.
A late-afternoon tour. In a car. Going street by street.
Smith wasn't participating in a laid-back excursion to see the sights. He knows Baker City fairly well as it is. No, Smith was looking for something that would fit the needs of a major firm considering making a big investment here.
"We were driving down every street in the city. Drove two hours," Smith said.
In the end Smith's effort to attract national retailer ShopKo to Baker City foundered.
But the late afternoon journey throughout the city to find a parcel of open property exemplifies the nature of localized economic development inside a region often seen as beleaguered after years of economic hardship.
Smith said the ShopKo episode was never about whether the firm wanted to locate a store in Baker City.
The company, he said, displayed a firm resolve to build locally. Yet, as is so often the case, the devil was in the details.
"The dilemma is what they perceived as the ideal location and what we had available didn't match their needs," Smith said. "They sat down with us multiple times."
Smith said the search for the right location consumed a great deal of time and energy.
"There was four and a half acres they wanted to be on, over by Bi-Mart but here was the dilemma - the land available by Bi-Mart has deed restrictions on it," Smith said.
A location near St. Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City was offered, but that didn't work either.
"They said no, we want to be right off the freeway," Smith said.
Property behind the Sunridge Inn was also offered as a possible alternative but that blueprint didn't gain traction.
"They said, no, we won't be on the backside of any property," Smith said.
In the end, Smith said, all the viable alternatives proved to be impractical.
"We did everything we could. They (ShopKo) left the door open. If at some future point and time it does make sense they said give us a call," Smith said.
The ShopKo case also illustrates the sometimes stark choices officials involved in economic development face. On one hand, ShopKo Stores Operating Co. - a $3 billion firm that operates more than 300 stores in 21 states - represents jobs and more retail choices for hometown customers.
On the other hand, the potential slots connected to a new ShopKo store do not necessary translate into high-paying salaries. Striking a balance between an alternative that furnishes jobs and finding one that distributes high salaries can be extremely difficult.
"There is a recognition the jobs they (ShopKo) were going to create were probably 15 to 20 and some were part-time, minimum wage and we had to balance that with how do you help them knowing they won't be the best prime jobs?" Smith said.
While Smith believes that searching for outside firms is a good path, he said a focus on existing businesses is the primary goal to economic health.
Local business owner Tabor Clarke agreed. Clarke, who owns J.Tabor Jewelers at 1913 Main St., also said that the local economy sustained itself during the dark economic times in the past because of one single industry: Agriculture. Specifically, cattle.
"A true blessing has been that cattle and commodity prices have held strong. The backbone of this country is agriculture," he said.
County statistics from 2010 illustrate Clarke is correct.
Farms and ranches generated a record-high of $91.9 million in gross sales in 2012, the most recent year for which records are available. Of that, 59 percent came from the sale of beef cattle.
Clarke, who has owned his store since 1999, also said that he believes Baker County's relative isolation - along with the agriculture industry - paid off when the rest of the state suffered a massive economic disaster a few years ago.
"From a business standpoint I think Baker County, in its own way, has sustained all of these (economic) ups and downs of the past 10 years maybe a little better than some. Only because we are somewhat insulated," he said.
Clarke said that he, too, is aware of how difficult the economic development challenge is locally.
"It has always been a challenge to find new job creating industries in rural Oregon. I think perhaps one of the biggest challenges is sustaining what we have," he said.
Smith said another key existing economic attribute locally is tourism.
"Sometimes folk's kind of poo-poo tourism and recreation. But those dollars come from outside the county and when we create that kind of activity it creates a win for the community," he said.
Nourishing local business, Smith said, is what his department is all about. He emphasized that area business owners should not hesitate to contact his office to seek assistance on any economic development issue or idea.
"We want folks in the county to know we are here to help. Call us. We'll come meet with you. We are here to help, we are a resource. I think we have a great future. We have to continue to support our existing business owners and support tourism and recreation," he said.
Smith's phone number is 541-523-5460. His office is in the Baker Tower, 1705 Main St., Suite 500 A.