An unusual entourage of government leaders braved Thursday’s blustery weather for a walking tour of Hood River’s Downtown Historic District.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski was flanked by about 15 city, county and state officials as he strolled through the Downtown Historic District. He began the tour by donning a conductor’s hat and climbing aboard the new engine at Mt. Hood Railroad depot. The lead train car was purchased with federal grant funds that became available through the passage of a 2001 legislative bill sponsored by Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, one of Kulongski’s two legislative hosts for the Jan. 29 visit to the Gorge.
Metsger and Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, had issued an invitation less than one week earlier for the newly elected governor to visit The Dalles and Hood River to learn more about Mid-Columbia economic challenges. The bi-partisan team was pleased with the top state official’s enthusiastic acceptance and his inclusion of two other key state figures, Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katie Koba and Marty Brantley, new director of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.
Both Metsger and Smith are heading key economic development and trade committees in their respective roles and expect to work closely with Kulongoski in the near future to draft initiatives that will guide Oregon’s financial recovery.
“We wanted to introduce the governor to great people in two rural communities who were talking very specifically about what we need out here to boost our economy,” said Smith.
In spite of the voter’s rejection of Measure 28 the night before, the governor seemed relaxed and carefree as he strolled through Big Winds, Sheppard’s and Franz Hardware before sitting down to enjoy one of his favorite microbrews at Full Sail Brewing Company. His terse replies to several incoming cell phone calls from staffers were the only sign that he was dealing with $310 million in painful cuts brought by the defeat of the proposed three-year income tax surcharge.
“The governor’s message was very clear that we’re going to have to tighten our belts and the only way that we solve our economic woes is through solving our economic ills,” said Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock.
Kulongoski underscored those words at a press conference following his private lunch with Schock and other local dignitaries at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. He reiterated that he was opposed to reopening debate about the 2001-03 budget cuts but would try to soften the blow to services wherever possible.
“I think all of us want to move forward and we’re going to be looking very aggressively at administrative changes we can make,” he said.
Kulongoski believes the demise of Measure 28 came in part because many taxpayers don’t want to turn any more of their hard-earned dollars over to a government that they distrust and view as inefficient.
“The voters have spoken on this and I may not like the message but I’ve said all along that we’re going to live within our means,” he said.
Kulongoski said the key to a sustainable budget was to encourage business growth that brought more family wage jobs. However, he was reluctant to voice an opinion about whether he would sign off on a tribal gambling casino in Cascade Locks — an idea staunchly opposed by his predecessor, John Kitzhaber.
Kulongoski confirmed his opposition to having the facility built on 40 acres of trust land just above Hood River but said he had not yet initiated formal talks with leaders from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to discuss alternate siting in the Port of Cascade Locks’ 120-acre industrial park.
Following the conclusion of their official host duties, a pleased Smith and Metsger, who had carpooled to the Gorge that day, strolled down Second Street discussing the state budget difficulties they were determined to help overcome.
“Here’s the opportunity to prioritize government spending, it’s now in front of us and I think with this governor we’re going to get there,” Metsger said.