Priming Prineville

A High Desert town diversifies.

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Crook County was especially hard-hit by the recession. From 2009 until early 2014, the county had the state’s highest unemployment rate, clocking in as much as 19%. But the region’s economic outlook improved considerably in 2011, when Facebook opened a data center in Prine­ville. Soon afterward, Apple started building two facilities for the company’s iCloud service there.

Multinationals are attracting most of the attention, but they aren’t the only ones bringing new employment opportunities. EnviroTech Services, a maker of chemical deicing fluid, recently opened a manufacturing plant. Hillsboro Aviation started a flight school at the county-owned airport. Local business Woodgrain Millwork, which manufactures moulding and other wood products, is expanding, and Bend-based St. Charles Hospital is building a new facility: the St. Charles Prineville.

Why is Prineville such a draw? “Certainly Central Oregon’s quality of life is a factor for many businesses, but economics is the driver,” says Steve Forrester, Prineville’s city manager. “We understand where business entities are coming from, what motivates them and the value they place on time.” Forrester, like many city staff members, spent much of his career in the private sector. “We’re solutions based and customer focused.”

Several factors are helping attract new companies to the area, says Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, a public-private partnership. He ticks off a list: the region’s climate (lower nighttime temperatures mean spending less money on air-conditioning), affordable commercial property, and availability of power and water. Prineville and Crook County did sweeten the pot by offering Facebook and Apple 15-year property tax exemptions. Forrester doesn’t know how much revenue they are giving up every year, but he acknowledges the amount is “significant.”


As tech companies move into town
, the city is retooling its education system to help train future workers. The Crook County Open Campus is offering new server-maintenance classes. The local high school has a technology club supported by volunteers, and superintendent Duane Yecha says they hope to have a full-blown career technical education program to teach students skills in server maintenance and similar fields. 

“Programs like this will beef up our ability to connect youth to jobs in the high-tech industry,” he says. The city has also broken ground on a new elementary school, which will replace buildings constructed in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s no secret that rural Oregon is hurting, and in 2014, Prineville’s unemployment rate is still a distressingly high 10.7%. But the trend lines are heading up. According to a study by ECONorthwest, construction of Facebook’s data center supported approximately $142.7 million in local economic activity, including $51.4 million in personal income and 1,081 jobs. For every 10 jobs Facebook creates directly, the company also spins off an additional 14 indirect and induced jobs elsewhere in the state.

Historically an agriculture and wood-products economy, Prineville’s economic trajectory is intriguing inasmuch as it may provide a model for other rural towns looking to diversify beyond their natural-resource base. To attract new business, the city has made significant investments in infrastructure, including high-speed fiber-optic cable and improvements to the Ponderosa substation, boosting transmission capacity by 400 megawatts. Prine­ville is also upgrading its water system to improve service both to residents and to the new data centers. 

That story is being repeated all over the country. As The New York Times reported last month, small towns in Kentucky seek to jump-start a “post-coal” economy by investing in high-capacity, high-speed Internet cable aimed at luring data centers “like those at a state department visa-processing center in Williamsburg that uses facial-recognition technology.”

Bringing Facebook to Prineville gave local leaders a lot of confidence, Lee says. “They’re thinking as creatively as any city in our region about how to attract new jobs and investment to their community.”

Crook County Unemployment Rate
in 2009: 19.3%
in 2014: 10.7%

Source: Oregon Employment Department

“The city and freight depot were very willing to work with us to develop a business plan and get situated there. It’s a great place to do business. Everyone is willing to help.” —Jerold Vincent, EnviroTech Services

 “I believe we are not done with data centers. I expect we will see one or two more move here in the next few years. We are being very proactive in getting ready to welcome them to our community.” —Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe