Coastal communities have a bright future ahead

Joan McGuire

A blueprint for reviving the South Coast economy.

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For over 100 years lumber and fishing dominated the economy of the Southwestern coast. County lines were drawn to ensure inland cities such as Roseburg and Eugene had access to the ports. Trees as far as the eye could see were harvested for the timber. Crabbing and fishing vessels left daily. Life was good. 

In the mid-1980s the tides turned quickly and tragically. New regulations governing the fishing and timber industries made it increasingly more difficult to continue the life so many had known. In 1987, many large mills shut down, starting a 30-year recession for the area. Over the past few decades, the state has seen an average of 21% increase in population. But most communities along the coast have only seen single-digit increases. Many have experienced negative population growth. 

To turn the economy around, the region needs to confront the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

Environmental policies still remain one of the biggest points of conflict. While it is essential that we make responsible environmental choices, many in this community think the only way to truly innovate and grow is by relaxing our environmental standards. For example, one FEMA regulation, aimed at maintaining salmon habitat, imposes fines and discourages development in 100-year flood plains. This policy sounds reasonable.  But downtown Coos Bay was built on a marsh over 100 years ago, and any building being renovated for new business is now subject to the new regulations. 

On the other hand, many think that the laws and regulations don’t go far enough to protect endangered species on the South Coast. We need to find a happy medium between regulation and business growth. 

Workforce housing is another challenge. With an average of  a 1% vacancy rate, housing is at a premium. Houses selling at workforce wages are currently being snapped up by retirees, vacation rentals, or second homes. The problem cannot simply be solved by building more homes, as many contractors cannot afford to build cheaper dwellings due to high land, labor and construction costs.  

Labor shortages exacerbate the problems on the coast. Just 10 years ago, the unemployment rate was around 12%, and jobs were tough to find. Today, the problem is finding people to fill the abundant number of entry level positions. Most local employers are having a hard time finding workers. One heavy industrial manufacturer I spoke with had nearly 40 positions available. To land one of these jobs, workers had to meet only three requirements: Show up on time. Work eight hours a day. Pass a drug screening. 

The employer is still struggling to find adequate help. 

Solutions to these challenges are on the horizon. 

Nurturing clean tech businesses is a way for the community to keep the environment healthy while developing sustainable companies. Stillwagon Distillery, manufacturer of The Devils Own Rum, is developing a new technology that reduces effluents from rum manufacturing by 98%, and recycles the water for later use. 

Other technologies are being developed in Coos and Curry Counties to further innovate in green manufacturing operations. One manufacturer is working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to ensure effluent used in their process is within regulations. 

Public-private partnerships can facilitate the development of workforce housing. An example of this is the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. In order to recruit and retain high quality employees, the resort was forced to innovate by  building homes themselves, partnering with local businesses and municipalities to build housing seasonal workers could actually afford. Likewise, the city of Bandon and a foundation have banded together to incentivize land owners to sell or lease long-term  land in a gorse-infested section of town. This partnership reduced the risk of fire from gorse, and reduced the cost of housing overall. 

About those labor shortages:

Like many other communities, the South Coast has started a “grow our own workforce” campaign.  This means we are identifying opportunities in high school and providing training toward those much-needed traded sector skills. One promising example involves a mobile welding trailer and the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute located on the Southern Western Oregon Community College campus, High school and college students are being trained in much needed skilled labor jobs. 

Businesses are paying attention as coastal communities chart a new path. One manufacturer is currently in negotiations to relocate their facilities in mainland China to Coos County. At least two small data center companies have built facilities in coastal cities because of the moderate temperatures and quality of life amenities sought after by an ever-evolving workforce. 

The biggest challenge ahead for the South Coast is creating supported and sustained growth. If we grow too quickly there will not be enough infrastructure in place to manage the needs of those coming here. Businesses and the public can work together to become the beacon the South Coast used to be.  

Samuel Baugh is the executive director of the South Coast Development Council.

A version of this article appears in the March 2018 issue of Oregon Business.


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