Dozens of people assembled last month in Lebanon for the unveiling of a long-term economic development plan for Linn County, and you couldn't have blamed any of the participants for coming away with this conclusion:
This business of reworking an economy is hard.
And it's even harder when it involves rural communities that in some cases still are reeling from decades of wrenching economic change.
The Rural Linn Economic Development Organization has been working behind the scenes for nearly three years on a long-range regional economic plan. At the recent meeting, held at the Boulder Falls Center, members of the group's volunteer steering committee presented highlights of the plan.
The program that was presented to meeting attendees calls for hiring a full-time economic development coordinator for a three-year pilot project that would focus on economic development for the entire county, with an emphasis on its rural areas.
Goals for the plan include:
• Establishing a primary point of contact for potential companies.
• Connecting entrepreneurs with opportunities, including expertise and sources of capital.
• Assisting existing businesses with potential expansion.
• Linking local employers with a skilled and trained workforce.
• Advocating for stimulus programs and government support of workforce readiness and development.
Now, those aren't bad goals, not at all. Each of them could well be important parts of reshaping the economy in Linn County's smaller communities.
But pulling all them together on the desk of a new coordinator would seem to amount to more than a full load, especially considering that it's not at all clear how this position would be funded or to whom it would report.
Even assuming that adequate funding could be found, it's hard to imagine that anyone would be able to move the dial in all those areas in any significant way over a three-year period. It could take the better part of a year just for the coordinator to get a sense of the small businesses that already are operating in Linn County's smaller communities. If we set the expectations too high, failure is virtually guaranteed.
Additional clarity also is needed on the issue of how any new effort will work with existing economic development programs, and a number of those are in the area, including the Council of Governments, RAIN (Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network) and the state's regional economic development programs.
A related point: It will be important not to duplicate efforts already underway to make progress on some of these goals. For example, the Pipeline workforce-development program from the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce is showing considerable promise. How could a coordinator best work with a program like Pipeline to complement, not compete with, its efforts?
It's important to remember that we didn't get into these economic straits overnight, or even over a couple of years. The economic blues that have affected small towns and rural communities throughout Oregon have been brewing for decades. There's no single solution, no miracle cure. People point to Lebanon as an example of a former timber community that managed to pick itself off the canvas and reinvent itself. It's an excellent example. But it's easy to forget that the process took decades of careful planning and hard work, not to mention a few strokes of good luck.
Don't misunderstand us: The work tackled by the Rural Linn Economic Development Organization is vitally important, and could yet help point the way to a brighter economic future for residents throughout the county. But plenty of questions remain to be answered. And let's not fool ourselves into thinking that any of this work will be easy or will show immediate results.