Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don’t be stupid about economic development

It’s the political season in Sisters. Six candidates are vying for three seats on the Sisters City Council, which means they will have to distinguish themselves one from the other and sell voters on why they would do a better job as a councilor.

That’s all good. Except that if economic development becomes a political football — or, worse, a chew toy in a culture wars dogfight — Sisters will lose.

Actually, I’d like to jettison the term “economic development” and replace it with “economic vitality.” I think it’s more descriptive of a goal. We don’t just want to develop our economy — we want to make sure all sectors become and remain vital. At least, I assume we do.

We can’t afford to divide into camps, where one group favors one type of economic activity and another favors something else; where “the developers” are painted as somewhat sinister exploiters or proponents of focusing on the downtown core are dismissed as anti-growth obstructionists.

I’ve heard people talking about “economic development” using the term “the other side.” Big mistake. The distinctions are stupid. We’re too small to be stupid.

Whatever economic activity we can generate in Sisters is going to have a symbiotic relationship with all other economic activity. A vital, thriving, prosperous downtown core is vital to attracting the holy grail of “family wage” businesses, which in turn will provide patrons for shops and services.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had over where and how we should expend our energy and resources, but that debate has to be in good faith, not a way to score cheap political points or to poke your finger in the eye of somebody on “the other side.”

My own two cents are these: Any economic vitality plan or program that doesn’t focus first on retention is bogus. Attracting any business is speculative. Not that we shouldn’t try, but we must recognize that our best shot at economic vitality lies in enhancing the climate for the businesses that are here now.

If we can’t keep existing businesses vital, why would others come here? Vitality breeds greater vitality — and the opposite is true as well.

We have to define what we mean by retention. I don’t mean we prop up businesses that simply aren’t viable. The market is supposed to flush out businesses that don’t work; creative destruction is a healthy thing.

But sometimes — and especially in hard times — a business that could make it fails because there’s just not enough margin for error; a mistake or wrong turn is fatal. That’s where educational, financial and “enterprise facilitation” resources could really shine. Make sure that people with dreams have enough resources and savvy to avoid or quickly recover from the inevitable mistakes every entrepreneur makes; help them maximize their chances for success.

Then, of course, business owners themselves need to know what they don’t know and avail themselves of the resources available to them.

I always think of Jean Wells Keenan learning to be a business person through classes at COCC, building a thriving (and now international) business, a keystone of the community, because she knew she needed education, sought it out and found it when she needed it.

There’s a lot of pieces that have to work together to promote economic vitality, but helping the businesses we have to thrive has to be the first piece in the puzzle.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Jim, I agree with most of what you've said but I believe there is a significant problem with the current council members that claim to be supporters of “economic development”. There is a huge difference between economic development and real estate development. The current council has consistently advanced real estate development without understanding that economic development must occur first.

    Creating more developed property when occupancy of existing properties is low is counterproductive. This community does not need more homes or retail storefronts; there is no demand for these structures and to build more for a quick buck for the contractors, real estate agents, and landowners is short sighted. Developing excess property drives down all property values and invites unsustainable competition for existing businesses; everybody loses except the special interests that profit from real estate development.

    Economic development in this community cannot mean looking for companies to move operations here; that's not going to happen. Land cost too much, homes cost too much, and there is no skilled or semi-skilled workforce. Any company interested in Central Oregon will go to Redmond, Madras, or Prineville.

    Economic development in this community requires getting people to move here that are retired or can bring their job with them. This is a great place for high tech companies to hide a few of their best scientists, engineers, and programmers. If we could get just a few of these people to move here every year it wouldn't be long before there are small R&D labs in our industrial park that would provide good jobs to junior engineers and technicians. This is a development model that has been used in many places that offer a high quality of life and good schools. We need to be recruiting people, not companies.

  2. Mike, you said it perfectly!

  3. Yes. Thank you both Jim and Mike for your postings. Right On.

  4. Right on Mike! You hit the nail on the head.

  5. I really don't like agreeing with Mr. Morgan (after the whole school funding silliness) but I have to agree with him here. He said exactly what I feel on this matter. I hope enough voters are smart enough to see this...

  6. Anonymous:

    Thanks for the compliment. Regarding the school funding silliness, I hope you see Waiting for Superman when it comes out in a few weeks; we both might learn something. The Sisters School District is a very good district with very involved parents and community. It's the perfect place to test reform. I'll never support additional funding for a system that won't challenge union protection of marginal performing teachers. Total compensation and retention must be based on merit and not seniority. Why are you and so many others willing to close your eyes to the fact that some teachers are just plain bad at what they do? Is it because you have been able to steer your own kids around these sub-par performers? I think we need to be asking ourselves if it's right for us to ignore the plight of other kids stuck in a class that's not working even if our own kids are doing well. I think Waiting for Superman will address this question.

  7. Let's not derail the topic at hand.


  8. Jim,

    I'm a little late to the party but here we go.

    What is so wrong with being a tourist town? I used to own a trophy property in Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. I constantly argued with a few of my neighbors. They wanted to attract SF locals to the wharf. I gave that as much of a chance for success as getting them to drive nails into their eyes. Sisters is a tourist town. If I were going to open a business, manufacturing, textile, packaging, shipping, whatever, I would do it in Redmond. Why? Because location and operating costs are lower and, duh, that's where all my employess live. It's a lot easier for me to drive 25 miles each way to work than it is to make 20 people drive 25 miles to come here to work. This is simple.

    The whole jobs discussion is a puppet show. What jobs have the current council created? Not for lack of trying, but we've actually lost jobs during their rein. Why? The pursuit of jobs needs to be focused on the bird in hand, tourism!!!! We have the tourists, let's give them more to do when they visit here. Fill every weekend from May to October with activities, not sporadic functions, but coordinated activities, set a City Calendar and then fill it up!!!

    Trying to build electric cars, new empty developments or the space shuttle here in Sisters is a tragic waste of time.

    And please, don't attack me for my lack of optimism, I'm optimistic, but I'm governed by something greater, realism.

    Remember, just because you "can" do something, doesn't mean you "should".

    The City is cleaning itself up, that's a great start. How about some more smart steps to building an economically viable tourist destination?