Umatilla County has taken its economic development fund in a new direction, a welcome change after decades of under-the-radar and ineffective economic development that lacked a clear focus.
This year the county received about $300,000 of state lottery dollars to spend on economic development. And as the county pivots to a new way of dispersing it, oversight of the process and clear expectations about the results must be present.
County commissioner Bill Elfering, who oversaw this year’s dispersement of about $215,000, told East Oregonian reporter Phil Wright last week that “we don’t want to fritter the money away.”
And darn right that should be the goal. The significant amount of money has the opportunity to make a real impact on the Umatilla County economy.
Because the county now lacks an economic development director, or a clear overarching plan for such development, it needs to be consistent with how the money is given out and what is expected in return.
Currently, Elfering heads up a committee that includes county planner Tamra Mabbott, county financial director Robert Pahl and Susan Bower, who contracts with the county to provide employee training and development. They make the call on how much money goes where.
Umatilla County used to chip in for every civic gathering from Battle Mountain to Mt. Emily that asked for a donation. Steak feeds and sock hops are important — they help make Umatilla County livable, and livability provides a fertile soil for economic development. But Elfering’s decision to cut back on cutting small checks and focus on the things that could have big long-term benefits is a good idea.
So where should we funnel the big bucks?
Marketing and advertising can be powerful tools for one-off events, of which Umatilla County has some sparkling ones. Often a little bit of seed money pays for itself, as visitors and tourists infuse money into the local economy. Commissioners should consider well-planned campaigns that will do just that. Cultural projects can also bring in visitors while enriching the lives of Umatilla County residents — a worthwhile use of funds if done well.
The county should also consider financing infrastructure upgrades, the kinds of things that make all future development easier and cheaper. That can pay for itself too, as development can send more money into tax coffers and create good-paying jobs.
Saving up for big projects — like Elfering suggested — should be a longterm goal. When a golden opportunity comes along, it shouldn’t be financed by scraping together funds at the expense of the general fund.
But we shouldn’t get carried away.
As an editorial board, we’ve always been suspicious of expansive and over-promising government economic development programs. Our opinion is that much more often, it’s the private sector that leads development. The fact that the county is on a better path now than when it paid a full-time economic development director is proof of that.
But that doesn’t mean governments can’t have excellent customer service, be responsive to opportunities and be able to offer incentives for making big investments.
In our opinion, that’s how Umatilla County should use its lottery winnings.