Over the last 110 years the population of Baker County has grown by 537 people.
Unlike urban areas such as Portland and Eugene, which have grown by thousands every decade since 1900, local rural counties haven’t experienced rapid growth.
That is not to say that the population stagnation in Baker County is par for the course.
When compared to the six counties it boarders over the last 35 years, Baker is the only county that has experienced a total population change of less than 5 percent. Four of the counties bordering Baker have experienced either a growth or loss of over 10 percent over the same time period. Of the three counties that have had a loss in population during that time, Baker is nearly twice the size of the other counties.
Part of the reason Baker’s population has remained stagnant for so long is the age of the county’s population. According to the most recent census 21.9 percent of the county population is older than 65.
Baker City Mayor Mike Downing wants to see that change.
“We are constantly trying to attract new businesses and new residents” Downing said.
Two parts of the city that are meant to attract new businesses are the enterprise zone and the Elkhorn View Industrial Park.
The industrial park was established about 15 years ago and is a space for industrial businesses to develop and to conduct business, but 65 acres in the area remains unused. The park has all the necessary amenities for a business that would move in.
“We are working really hard to attract business and industry to the park,” said Baker County Director of Economic Development Greg Smith. “We are trying to show folks that within a few minutes they can be on the interstate.”
Within the next year Baker County will receive at least $7 million from the Oregon Legislature that will be used to improve 10th Street. The county will work with the community and business owners to establish a new design and layout for the street to create greater accessibility
The enterprise zone is area in Baker City in which businesses who expand or relocate to the area can possibly receive a property tax exemption for the new investment for three to five years. There is also the long-term enterprise zone, which allows qualified companies to receive the same exemption but for seven to 15 years.
“I don’t know what more we can do” said Downing.
One challenge for attracting companies to the city is that many big businesses have criteria for where they will build and small towns don’t always have areas that meet those criteria.
Downing said that about 10 years ago a big business was interested in setting up in town but the owners wanted to build at Geiser- Pollman Park.
Downing says that one of the reasons people don’t want to move to Baker is because of how rural the county is and that for older generations that is in some cases an up side.
“People are going to go where they are comfortable,” Downing said.
Agriculture is the biggest industry in the county bringing in around $90 million a year, but Downing says that the number of family ranches is going down.
Mark Bennett is one rancher whose family farm will not be passed to the next generation. Bennett is also a Baker County commissioner and sits on the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission(OAHC). Bennett’s family has been ranching since before the Revolutionary War but neither of his two kids have chosen to take over the family ranch once Bennett retires.
Bennett says that it was disappointing that neither of them want to take over the ranch. Bennett says that when he sells the farm he wants it to go to another family that wants to start a farm.
“There were tears shed by everybody actually,” Bennett said, about when he had a succession plan meeting with his family and realized they would have to eventually sell the ranch.
The agriculture commission that Bennett is a member of helps farmers deal with increasing challenges through providing incentives to those who maintain or enhance agriculture and natural resources.
“If our key economic driver is agriculture then we need to work diligently to protect it for the current and the next generation,” Bennett said.
The decrease of the amount of family farms is due to younger generations not being interested in working on ranches along with the high cost of operating a ranch, according to Downing.
“If you don’t know what you are doing it’s going to be expensive,” he said.
It can be nearly impossible to break into the ranching business for young couples without enough economic resources, according to Bennett. The average age of farmers in Oregon is 60 according to the OAHC.
“Its part of that whole millennial thing,” Downing said. Millennials just don’t want to work. They think everything should just be handed to them and they don’t have to work for it.”
Downing was born in 1979, which makes him only two years older than some millennials.
Historically Baker County has had a prosperous lumber industry but the industry has all but disappeared. There used to be six lumber mills in the county but now there are none active with the last one closing in 1996.
Baker County is mineral rich and has some of the richest mineral populations in the United States. The land has minerals such as gold, platinum and rare earth minerals. Despite this the State of Oregon has issued zero permits to mining companies, according Smith.
As of Aug. 13 there are 77 open jobs in Baker City. According to Downing companies are struggling to fill the jobs because they can’t find applicants who can pass a drug test.
“If you want a job in Baker County there is a job to be had,” Smith said.