The “Timber Belt” running from Northern California up through Oregon and into Washington sustained an economic collapse and population loss similar to the “Rust Belt” and “Corn Belt” of the Midwest, but its recovery has been entirely different, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
In a new report on demographic and economic trends unfolding in rural Oregon, state analysts detail pockets of resurgence, surprisingly hopeful statistics and unanswered questions of what comes next.
“All along the Timber Belt, people keep moving in” at a pace just as strong as the migration to urban centers such as Portland, state economists Mark McMullen and Joshua Lehner wrote.
“In general, these incoming migrants are different than the households moving out,” the analysts wrote. “Much of the time they are older and relocate to rural Oregon as they retire or reduce their work hours.”
The new residents of rural Oregon bring a “lifetime of experience” and wealth, “often in the form of California home equity,” McMullen and Lehner wrote.
“Figuring out how best to exploit the Timber Belt’s strong influx of retirees should be a top priority given such individuals are voting with their feet, in essence, saying they want to live in the area and be a part of the community,” the analysts said. “Overall this is certainly a good thing.”
Rural Oregon loses population during the “root setting” years of ages 25 to 34, when young adults are establishing careers, starting families and buying homes, the report said. Unlike most of rural America, however, Oregon is offsetting those losses with older migrants.
But for the young adults who stay in rural Oregon, McMullen and Lehner said statistics show children raised in rural Oregon, especially Eastern Oregon, have a good chance of succeeding in life.
Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project found that a rural Oregon child born at the bottom income level had a strong probability of reaching the top level as an adult, the authors said. Among more than 700 communities nationwide, the Oregon towns of Burns, Condon, Enterprise, John Day and Lakeview were among the top third in fostering such success, according to McMullen and Lehner.
Bruce Weber, director of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University, said the state analysis is “insightful.”
If the “boom and bust” nature of rural economies “creates an environment in which children grow up with different expectations and different levels of investment in education, these could also reduce upward mobility,” Weber said in an email.
Meanwhile, economic recovery in Oregon has pockets of success and stagnation.
While Portland and its suburbs are popping again, most of rural Oregon has not recovered the jobs lost in the recession, the authors said. An exception is the Columbia River Gorge, which the analysts said has benefited from three major trends.
First, agriculture remains strong, mainly fruit, and higher commodity prices helped local farmers. Second, wind farm construction provided investment and jobs from 2007 to 2011, which included the depth of the recession. Last, the unmanned aerial vehicle industry — drones — has grown dramatically over the past decade. Insitu, a major drone manufacturer, is headquartered in Bingen, Wash., across the Columbia from Hood River.
“A large portion of such jobs are on the Washington side of the Columbia River, however the economic and population base in the gorge is on the Oregon side, where much of the consumer spending occurs,” McMullen and Lehner wrote.
Although not cited by name in the state report, Hermiston, in Umatilla County, rode out the recession to become the biggest and fastest growing city in Eastern Oregon.
In Hermiston’s case, a strong agricultural sector is a stabilizing base for the economy, City Manager Byron Smith said.
“However you want to phrase it, people still need to have food,” he said. “A lot of our economy is based on that, either the actual production or the processing of agricultural products.”
Hermiston farmers grow potatoes, onions, melons and multiple types of other irrigated vegetables. The area has several food processing plants, and attracted a DuPont Pioneer corn seed research station.
Finally, the city diversified its economy through growth in the transportation and logistics sector. Wal-Mart has a distribution center in Hermiston, and FedEx and UPS also have facilities in the area.
“That’s another piece of the economy that does well for us,” Smith said.
See the Rural Oregon analysis at https://oregoneconomicanalysis.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/rural-oregon-2015.pdf