The announcement of the closure of the American Bridge Manufacturing facility in Reedsport last week prompted us to take a long look back at efforts to rejuvenate the South Coast economy over the last nearly four decades. It’s been that long since the bottom fell out of the timber industry when the spotted owl became the poster child of threats to the environment.
We talked with developers, economists, politicians and job experts. One comment caught our attention. Alex Campbell, executive director of The Partnership for Economic Development in Douglas County, said this:
“If I’m producing a generic kind of widget, all other things being equal, I would probably place that facility on (Interstate)-5. Unless there’s a compelling reason for a business to be on (U.S. Highway) 101 versus I-5, it’s a challenge to make that argument.”
What Campbell is suggesting is that there’s one singular barrier between the South Coast and economic happiness – 60 miles. That’s the average distance between us and I-5.
And within that 60 miles lies the real challenge – the Oregon Coast Range.
Through the range’s 3,500 – 4,000 feet weave mountain passes we must negotiate to reach the interstate and its promise of commerce. What would normally be a trip of an hour turns into two or more when one needs to drive north or south along the coast before reaching a pass.
Is it any wonder that our prosperity originally grew from the sea, when our ports shipped goods to San Francisco a century ago? But those days are over now, too.
Clearly, industry sees better opportunity elsewhere. Yet most of our development efforts still seem focused on two unlikely solutions: revitalizing the timber industry and wooing more industry and manufacturing.
Neither seems a reliable answer. Timber legislation is mired in Congress. Even if more trees were being cut, modern technology has slashed the number of jobs necessary to run a mill. And we already know which way manufacturing is headed.
We are, quite simply, an island, cut off from the mainland by the sea on one side and trees and mountains on the other.
Perhaps we should start thinking like islanders. On Thursday we’ll explain what we mean.