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Western Power switches off

From mills to orchards, ailing economy `hangs on'

Western Power Products is being dismantled by its new owner, leaving 22 workers without jobs.

On Tuesday, CDR Systems Corporation announced that it had purchased the Hood River plant from Cooper Power Systems, Inc., and would be moving its operations to other holdings.

The closure of the waterfront firm will end 43 years of local manufacturing that molded fiberglass enclosures for electric utilities and other customers.

The most recent layoffs follow on the heels of SDS Lumber Company's decision last week to cut 75 employees during a downsizing of its Bingen, Wash., plywood mill.

That grim news also arrives just three months before Northwest Aluminum in The Dalles may be forced to close down because of rising energy costs, sending hundreds of its remaining personnel to the unemployment lines.

To further fracture the local job situation, tree fruit growers in the Hood River Valley are facing yet another bad market year which may seal the fate for some family farms and place others in severe financial jeopardy.

(Please see related article, page A2).

The fruit industry currently feeds more than $80 million dollars back into the local economy, according to Oregon State University economists.

A growing influx of clientele has sent Marty Miller, regional director for the Workforce Investment Act, scrambling this week to gain a $270,000 federal emergency grant. Last year, Miller also had to apply for $200,000 in relief funds when the 130 laid-off employees of Hanel Lumber Company flooded the Hood River branch office of the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, which administers WIA funds.

He said if The Dalles aluminum plant is unable to remain open and the national economy continues in its current slump, smaller businesses in the Gorge could also be adversely affected as discretionary incomes dry up.

"The general economy in the Mid-Columbia is just hanging on," said Miller. "In the next six months we're really facing some pivotal events and if these go against us we're going to have some economic hard times."

He said MCCOG, which is headquartered in The Dalles, anticipated serving 200 WIA clients from its five county region between July 2001 to July 2002 but has already assisted more than 300 people -- with six months still to go in the fiscal year.

However, Dallas Fridley, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said Hood River County holds a 13th place ranking out of 32 labor market areas within Oregon for unemployment and is "middle of the road" for per capita income.

According to Fridley, Hood River's unemployment rate for November was 8.4 percent, almost two points above local 2000 figures. The statewide average for the same month was 7 percent, far exceeding the national rate of 5.3 percent.

The per capita income for Hood River County, according to Fridley, is $22,314, well below the high of Clackamas County at $32,237 but almost double the average in Gilliam County of $11,518.

He said if Hood River County follows its typical seasonal unemployment trend, the jobless rate will likely climb through the first part of the year, until the tourist season begins and the tree fruit growing season gets underway.

Miller said both Western Power and SDS Lumber Company employees will have an opportunity for special retraining funds if the U.S. Department of Labor certifies that foreign trade played a roll in their closures.

Hanel workers qualified for these benefits after the federal government acknowledged that foreign lumber imports was a determining factor in the Sept. 2000 shut down of the Odell mills.

SDS President Jason Spadaro said the closure of the Bingen plywood panel plant was due in large part to lower-priced Canadian imports that created an oversupply and weakened market prices.

Cooper Industries spokesperson John Breed said the company decided last spring to initiate the review of its North American holdings for possible sale or closure when customer demand was reduced by a downturn in the American economy.

If that downturn is determined to have been caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement or competition from other foreign markets, then Western Power employees will also be eligible for extra benefits that include career counseling, job placement assistance, relocation allowances and income support during long-term training.

Qualifying individuals will also be provided with support services such as child care and, once a training program is approved, will have their tuition, books, fees and other required supplies and tools paid for. While undergoing vocational retraining, they will also be allowed to receive unemployment insurance benefits for an extended period of time.

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