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Economic development summit highlights local projects

Housing, tourism, education and grant-writing were all topics of Umatilla County’s second annual economic development summit.
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on April 25, 2017 7:10PM

Last changed on April 25, 2017 7:25PM

The Highland Summit neighborhood on the east side of Hermiston. The city of Hermiston has focused on promoting housing development after seeing the rate of workers commuting from the Tri-Cities outpacing the amount of new housing added to Hermiston.

EO file photo

The Highland Summit neighborhood on the east side of Hermiston. The city of Hermiston has focused on promoting housing development after seeing the rate of workers commuting from the Tri-Cities outpacing the amount of new housing added to Hermiston.

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Umatilla County’s second annual economic development summit highlighted a long and far-ranging list of projects that cities and other groups are working on in every corner of the county.

County commissioner Bill Elfering said the county is eager to assist those projects in any way possible.

“Jobs mean people, people mean houses, and houses mean taxes,” he said.

Elfering kicked off the summit with examples of projects the county’s economic development department has supported using lottery dollars from the state. In the past, he said, the county has often given that money to events without a long-lasting impact to the county. Now it is focusing instead on projects that will leave something tangible for the community, such as the Rivoli Theater restoration in Pendleton and the disc golf course coming to Hermiston.

One project that Elfering described as in its infancy is working with west-end cities on a bike-ped trail along the Umatilla River that will eventually stretch from Echo down to the Columbia River.

He also described the county’s efforts to assist in recruiting new business to the area. Some — sporting code names like Project Glitter and Project Jungle — never got farther than providing information to a mysterious company. But others have bore fruit, resulting in everything from new wineries to mushroom growers locating in Umatilla County,

Businesses won’t locate in Umatilla County without a workforce to support them, and county planning director Tamra Mabbott shared an inventory of all residentially-zoned land in the county that her department put together in an effort to support more housing for a growing workforce. The unincorporated parts of the county include 4,081 total parcels of residential land, while cities include another 18,056 parcels, 2,202 of which are still undeveloped. Mabbott passed around a sign-up sheet for a new housing development task force she hopes to begin soon.

Mark Morgan, assistant city manager for the city of Hermiston, shared during a later round-table discussion that the city of Hermiston had recently decided to focus on promoting housing development after seeing the increase in workers commuting from the Tri-Cities outpacing new housing added to Hermiston.

“It was very evident we were adding jobs for people to commute from the Tri-Cities to fill,” he said.

Tourism is another component of economic development, and Umatilla County tourism coordinator Karie Walchli shared efforts her office, in conjunction with the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association and Travel Oregon, have been making to promote tourism in Umatilla County. A recent, high-profile effort has included putting together materials to help communities handle the expected influx of visitors that will arrive in Eastern Oregon to see the solar eclipse in August.

Walchli said it has become obvious that agritourism is a yet under-utilized fit for Umatilla County, and the county is working on creating new opportunities, including two new self-guided driving tours through the county’s farmland.

Last year’s economic development summit was centered around a major workforce study that encompassed survey results from 180 employers, interviews with 35 employers and focus groups. The study named top barriers that employers found in hiring skilled workers, skills that those employers felt were lacking in Umatilla County’s workforce, and jobs that were particularly difficult to fill.

Susan Bower, president of Eastern Oregon Business Source and author of that study, said feedback from that study has directly informed several efforts in the county in the past year.

Pendleton School District’s School to Careers program, for example, used the study to create a 90-minute Jump Start Orientation program that students take before being placed in a mentorship or work study. The orientation goes over basics that employers told Bower young workers are often lacking, such as phone etiquette, professional dress, punctuality and work ethic. Bower said employers have told her the orientation has made a noticeable difference in the behavior of students who participate in internships and other opportunities with them.

Another program to come out of last year’s economic development summit is the Regional Capacity-Building Initiative. Participants in last year’s summit said one way the county could help cities, nonprofits, schools and other groups in economic development was to assist them in grant writing.

“We heard from you that we are leaving dollars on the table as a region, and we agreed,” Bower said.

The Regional Capactiy-Building Initiative so far includes quarterly workshops, one-on-one trainings and bi-monthly “tips and tricks” publications to assist entities in finding new grants and being more effective in competing for grant dollars.

Bower said more programs are in the works, including a collaboration with CAPECO to create a new workforce development program and a quarterly Employer of Choice series that will feature speakers on how employers can more effectively attract and retain talented workers.


Contact Jade McDowell at or 541-564-4536.


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