Economic development’s new outlook

A different kind of agency head and a renewed focus on strategy signals a new era for the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.


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A different kind of agency head and a renewed focus on strategy signals a new era for the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.

By Christina Williams

Gov. Ted Kulongoski made a pair of economic appointments in February that were largely ignored by most of the business community. After all, when Oregon’s economy is showing new strength with rising job creation rates and concerns about education and tax reform are being pushed front and center, it’s easy to forget about economic development.

But the hiring of Bob Repine as director of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department is a significant one for the state’s business environment, and the naming of Erik Stenehjem as science and technology adviser to the governor holds its own significance as a bridge between the state and the research powerhouse across the Columbia River, Pacific Northwest National Labs.

The two represent an effort by a re-election-hopeful Kulongoski to ensure that economic development isn’t left behind as the state’s economy regains its footing.  

“It’s critically important for the private business community to function in an infrastructure that’s state of the art,” says Kulongoski. “The department of economic development has to be a partner to provide that infrastructure, and you can’t have that role without a positive relationship with the Legislature.”

The governor describes the state’s view of economic development in recent memory as “schizophrenic,” and the tall order he has for Repine, who led the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department for eight years, is coalescing both the Legislature and the business community around a set of priorities that will guide the OECDD’s energies and resources in the years to come.

That Repine brings a much more Salem-savvy resume to the job than previous economic development heads is no accident. He’s a Republican and former contractor from Grants Pass who served a decade in the Legislature before being tapped by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to lead OHCS in 1998. By many accounts, the department’s biggest historic stumbling block has been quibbling with  the Oregon Legislature over priorities, and Repine’s time in the trenches is being counted on to add credibility to the department.

“INSPIRED,” IS HOW JACK ISSELMANN, a former deputy director of the OECDD, describes the Repine appointment — and not just for his experience handling a state agency. Repine was appointed to lead housing in a post-welfare-reform era. “The entire landscape of public assistance for housing had changed,” says Isselmann, who served his time in the agency with director Marty Brantley, who stepped down last year. “During his tenure there he applied a lot of innovation to how to go about forging new relationships with nonprofits, developers, faith-based organizations and so on.”

Similarly, Isselmann says, Repine is taking over OECDD at a time when economic development has changed to reflect a different Oregon economy. Sought-after high-tech companies are not land-dependent or natural-resource-driven, so the usual incentives for economic development, such as property tax reductions or tax reductions tied to significant capital investments, won’t be as effective. “There’s a sea change in some of the fundamentals in the activities he’s going to manage,” he says.

For his part, Repine, who moved up the street to his new office at OECDD in March and will be confirmed by the Legislature in April, says he’s got a lot to learn. “I’ve got 10 months before the legislative session starts,” he says.

By then he plans to have a strategic plan in place around a set of objectives that touches on workforce training, global competitiveness, community infrastructure, reducing barriers to a competitive business climate, marketing and cultural development.

At housing, Repine says he had a similar plan that he tacked up in the hallways in an effort to keep employees on the same page. “It’s saying, ‘Here’s what we plan on doing. If we don’t do this, you have the right to be upset with us.’”

For Repine, being so clear with the agency’s objectives goes a long way toward diffusing criticisms of economic development. “You have to create an open enough process. Being transparent is very important,” he says. “I have this much resources, I have this many places to apply these resources. You just keep working on it.”

Steve Vincent, economic development representative for Avista Utilities in Medford, says Repine’s appointment is an important improvement to a department that already functions pretty well. “It will probably bring more rural flavor and perspective to the leadership,” Vincent says. “People outside of Portland will fear a state government agency that’s historically been Portland-centric.”

Randy Miller, chairman of the Portland Ambassadors, a private-sector business recruitment group, says the state’s biggest city has had its own on-again, off-again relationship with OECDD, but that lately he’s seen improvement in the cooperation between Salem and what he calls the economic development “machine” that’s been developed in the greater Portland area between the Portland Development Commission, the Portland Business Alliance, his group and others. “The dialogue is what’s really important,” Miller says.

Repine takes over for Mike Salsgiver, a former Intel employee popular with the business community, who slips into the role as OECDD deputy director in July after serving as interim director since Brantley’s departure. Repine will have to scramble to establish relationships with business leaders, especially among the high-tech set where he’s largely unknown.

YET ANOTHER STRIPE ON THE GOVERNOR’S new economic development tracksuit is the temporary appointment of Erik Stenehjem as science and technology adviser to the government, a position housed at OECDD and designed to shore up economic development talent on the high-tech front.

Stenehjem (pronounced “sten-yem”) is an economist by training but has served in recent years as a commercialization expert to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Batelle-owned Department of Energy laboratory in Richland, Wash. He’s “on loan” to the state from Batelle, which means his salary is still being paid by them, but the governor’s office is picking up the tab for his temporary relocation and travel expenses.

Kulongoski has high hopes for Stenehjem’s renewable nine-month appointment. “He’s the person who’s going to guide me through this maze,” Kulongoski says. Stenehjem will work closely with the Oregon Innovation Council, the group formed during the last legislative session that combines the efforts of several public-private partnerships for economic development into one group known by the shorthand Oregon InC, to identify areas for investment by the state to better pave the way for more high-tech companies to make their home in Oregon.

“It’s not that the state didn’t put money into things,” Kulongoski says. “It was just never put in with a strategic vision.” The focus now is on being a contender in the global economy, which means being a competitive state — in terms of education, worker skills and environment to thrive.

After being the first Oregon governor to visit PNNL last year on the heels of an announcement that PNNL would place 20 researchers at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute at Oregon State University, Kulongoski says he started immediately plotting even more ways to tap the brainpower at the lab.

PNNL has long been viewed as an economic development engine in Washington — lab employee Fred Morse worked for Gov. Gary Locke’s administration in a similar capacity to Stenehjem’s — and Oregon seems to have also woken up to PNNL’s potential.

What Stenehjem hopes to do during his stint with the state is find ways to leverage the considerable research money that comes to the region into more economic development opportunities. He lists what he sees as the state’s assets — a cluster orientation of industries that he says is ahead of what he’s seen in other Pacific Northwest states, the work-together mantra shared by the legislative, education and business folks under the umbrella of Oregon InC, and the work done in Salem for easier commercialization of university research.

Stenehjem’s specific goals include finding even more federal research dollars for Oregon institutions, cementing new relationships with shared economic development goals between Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and identifying Oregon’s next ONAMI — a signature research center that can act as an engine for jobs and a magnet for federal funding. “If I got at least half of that done, I’d be happy,” Stenehjem says.

For Kulongoski, who’s been touting the relative strength of the state’s economy as a main theme in his quest for re-election, shoring up the next phase of development will be a crucial plank in his platform. He’s betting these appointments will be the nails that put that plank in place.

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