By DAVE HARLAN
Special to the News
As the debate on the waterfront has intensified, those most vocal in their concerns about waterfront development have seized on certain numbers. Numbers like maximum building heights. Numbers like the setback from the top of the Columbia River bank. Numbers like how many acres of park they would prefer. Numbers like the cost of maintaining parks.
Interestingly, other numbers have gone unmentioned by those same voices. Numbers like Hood River County’s chronic high unemployment rate. Numbers like the county’s high poverty rate. Numbers like low wages and salaries compared with the state as a whole. Numbers like the high cost of housing.
Hood River County’s June unemployment rate was 11.1 percent, compared with 8.4 percent statewide and 6.5 percent for the nation as a whole. Last August’s rate for the county was 12.6 percent. Ten years ago, the county’s 1993 jobless rate was 10.6 percent, compared with 7.3 percent for Oregon as a whole. Hood River County racked up a 10.8 percent rate in 1997; almost double the statewide rate of 5.8 percent.
Hood River County’s average wage and salary income was $18,057 in 1993, a little more than a quarter less than the statewide figure of $24,091, according to the Oregon Employment Division. The county’s average wage and salary income for the year 2000 was $21,493 dollars — 35th out of 36 Oregon counties — more than a third below the statewide figure of $32,776.
While our county’s average wages have continued to fall further behind state and national averages, local housing costs have skyrocketed. The average home in Hood River County was worth $152,400 in 2000, higher than the statewide average of $152,100. Divide the county’s average wage and salary figure for that year — $21,493 — into the median housing value and you’ll find the average home in this county in 2000 was a hair over seven times Hood River’s average annual wage and salary. Do the same calculation for Oregon as a whole and you get 4.64 — in other words, Oregon’s average home value of $152,100 in 2000 was 4.64 times the state’s average wage and salary income figure of $32,776 dollars.
Recent data suggests the average home value in Hood River County is now $190,000. Given three years of recession and the trends of the past decade or more, I think it’s prudent to assume that the gap between average wages and housing costs has only widened.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 14.2 percent of the county’s residents lived below the federal poverty line in 2000 compared with 11.6 percent for Oregon as a whole. Those HUD numbers, derived from 2000 Census figures, also say that 17.3 percent of Hood River County children 18 and under lived in poverty in 2000, as did 7.8 percent of county residents over 65. According to HUD, 47.7 percent of the City of Hood River’s residents fell into the low and moderate income category in 2000, up from 38.3 percent in 1990. For a family of three living in Hood River, that’s anybody with a household income of $21,250 or less.
Those are official numbers. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. And what they clearly indicate is that Hood River’s economy lost ground in the booming 1990s. It is apparent that those trends did not impact all county residents equally. That’s reflected in many of the letters regarding the waterfront that have recently appeared in this newspaper and have been submitted to the city.
Those disturbing economic numbers — central to the Port’s July 31 informational presentations on waterfront planning efforts — were derided by one recent letter writer to this newspaper as “propaganda.” Another letter in that same edition focused on height, setback and park size figures with no mention of the larger economic issues. A guest column in that same edition spoke to the “world class” status of our community, stating that “downtown is thriving” while wasting not a word on the underlying economic numbers that make each day a struggle for too many of our county’s residents. Another recent letter writer expressed concern about the impact of user fees — such as those charged at the Event Site — on struggling families, suggesting higher property taxes as a remedy, thus replacing a cost that struggling families can avoid with one they can’t.
I’ve read most of the written comments submitted to the city regarding the waterfront in recent months. Of over 40 letters expressing concern about development plans for the waterfront, not one of them addresses the economic numbers referenced above. Not one. A few make mention of the need to “protect” Hood River’s economy by investing in more and larger parks on the Hood River waterfront, as opposed to balanced development that would enhance both the community’s economy and quality of life.
“Hood River needs to stop this type of growth on the waterfront and if possible reverse any existing growth,” wrote one Seattle resident. Similar missives have been sent to the city from other Seattle area residents, from Portland, from Vancouver, B.C., and from other relatively thriving distant communities. Two letters from individuals who make it clear that they have not yet been to our fair city — one from Baltimore, another from an unidentified locale — also express opposition to waterfront development, based solely on the premise that they may someday desire to visit Hood River.
One would hope that the comments of those from communities elsewhere are based on an ignorance of local economic conditions, and that they might reconsider their position if they knew the truth about the economic realities facing too many of our county’s residents.
Yet comments from other concerned citizens closer to home have also scrupulously avoided our county’s larger economic issues. One local resident urges the creation of “an aesthetic environment that benefits the greatest number of people, particularly the public.” Another states that they “would support higher taxes on property values to finance park space,” with no mention of those who might not be able to pay the bill. And another local resident, in one of four separate commentaries on the waterfront submitted to the city, describes the local economy as “thriving,” contrary to any official figures available on the subject.
I suppose if you define high unemployment, high poverty, low wages and high housing costs as “thriving,” then there is some truth in that statement. But I would argue that it is part of an unsettling pattern of denial by some of the more vocal critics of waterfront development.
Everybody concerned with the waterfront should be concerned about building heights, setbacks, green space and maintenance costs, for it’s that combination of numbers that will dictate what can be feasibly developed and maintained. The Port’s plans for the waterfront are intended to support waterfront recreation and the positive impact it has on our community, while also benefiting the majority of Port district residents.
But all of us should also be concerned about the larger picture, the underlying economic numbers that irrefutably demonstrate the weakness of our county’s economy. And I think it’s reasonable to question how let-them-eat-cake park proposals for the waterfront will address those numbers and help Hood River County’s struggling majority obtain a better economic future and, with it, a better quality of life.
Why have those most vocal on the issue of waterfront development said virtually nothing about the underlying economic issues that affect the majority of Hood River County residents? That’s a question only they can answer. From where I’m standing, their continued silence on the issue speaks louder than anything else they’ve said to date.
Dave Harlan is executive director of the Port of Hood River.