By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock is on a quest to retain local businesses and industries by giving them room to grow.
He is calling for a Global Information System (GIS) mapping of all “shovel ready” industrial lands within the county. He believes the GIS inventory will highlight a problem that officials need to tackle — the dearth of properties that are both ready to build on and affordable.
“By the time you plug into all the requirements that you need to make a sale there are very few appropriate pieces of land,” said Schock.
He said the need for more industrial jobs was brought home to him with the volume of people seeking employment at Cardinal IG in Odell. According to Schock, more than 2,000 people have applied for the 135 available jobs at the plant since it opened in January of 2004.
Even if some of these people are from out of the area, or are already employed, Schock said the number still represents a huge percentage of the county’s 9,200 person workforce. He said although Hood River County had a positive 5.1 percent rate of job growth in 2004, the unemployment rate is still grim at 8.3 percent — more than 3 percent above the national average and about two points above the state average.
“This situation has really driven things home for me. It’s those folks who don’t have work that I am concerned about and think we need to make their life better,” he said.
Helping Cardinal get settled into the mid-valley was one of the major tasks undertaken by Hood River Economic Development Coordinator Bill Fashing. He worked on that project by helping facilitate a tax break through expansion of Cascade Locks’ Enterprise Zone. Cascade Locks is one of the few state designated areas selected to utilize 10 acres for development with the enticement of a three-year start-up tax exemption. The parcels within the zone did not have to be contiguous so Cardinal’s new home on the site of the former Lower Hanel Mill was tucked into the new boundaries. Also incorporated into the Enterprise Zone, which Fashing now manages, were most of the other available industrial lands within the county.
However, Fashing said most midsized companies with growth potential eliminate Hood River County as a possible new home for the following reasons:
* There are no buildings of significant size that are ready to move into. Most firms don’t want to delve into construction issues because that takes time away from production.
* Between seven and 10 acres is required by most employers willing to expend money for a major relocation. And that property needs to be environmentally clean and have sewer and other infrastructure already up and running.
* The average cost of one industrial acre in Hood River County is between $60,000-$70,000, compared to between $50,000-$60,000 in The Dalles.
“We have had quite a few inquiries in the last six months but we are always out of the running for a site visit because we just can’t fulfill these requirements,” said Fashing.
He acknowledges that his job will become much easier if Schock is able to gain momentum on his plan to make more industrial sites workable. The single largest block of available industrial land lies in Cascade Locks. There are 120 acres in the rural community, although half of that property has been reserved for a tribal gambling casino.
The remaining 60 acres is primarily ready to build on — but cannot be fully developed until a better railroad crossing is constructed. The sole entrance into the industrial park now lies over the Union Pacific tracks and that has deterred businesses because of safety concerns and delays while trains pass by. In fact, the state fire marshal has recommended that only part of the industrial park be built out until an above-grade crossing is constructed — something the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs plan to do if their casino proposal meets federal approval.
There might be a total of 900 acres of private/public industrial land spread throughout the county, but Fashing said the majority of it is either already developed or unusable.
The Port of Hood River has about 23 acres of waterfront property that is currently designated as prime industrial property. Schock said the mixed-use zoning plan on the table has been pulled by the City of Hood River, as requested by the port, so he believes the economic time is ripe to bring more clean manufacturing to town.
“We’ve got a lot of interest being shown in our waterfront right now and I believe we can put people to work down there,” he said.
As Schock initiates a county-wide discussion on the industrial lands issue, Fashing is striving to keep companies from leaving the Gorge altogether. For example, once it became known that Homeshield was going to relocate from the waterfront for expansion needs, Fashing set to work. He joined other officials throughout the Mid-Columbia helping to facilitate the company’s move to The Dalles or Dallesport.
“It all works together, we are a regional economy so we need to continue to build the entire region,” he said.
Fashing is always looking down the road for future job creation possibilities. He testified on behalf of the “Mill Bill” successfully co-sponsored by Rep. Patti Smith and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Mt. Hood, in 2003. House Bill 2691 streamlines the process for more than 140 abandoned lumber plants within the state to be converted for other industrial uses.
Fashing also routinely monitors activities in Salem to weigh in on issues that affect Hood River County. He keeps his ear to the ground for news of firms that are looking to relocate — and then tries to draw them to the Gorge. He said the scenic setting of the area, and the available outdoor recreational opportunities, are great selling points. But they often can’t overcome the cost and time delays for companies to jump through regulatory hurdles to develop a piece of property.
Especially when, just up the road in The Dalles, industrial sites await that already have all of the necessary infrastructure in place. In the past, Hood River County has lost Round Top Window Products, Inc., to The Dalles. The port was able to stop Renaissance Learning Inc., formerly known as Humanities Software, from leaving the area by constructing a new business park to accommodate the company’s need for growth.
“I am actively out trying to identify potential companies that would fit into Hood River County’s business community. But we just don’t have project-ready industrial lands and that’s a major challenge,” said Fashing. “You are not going to convince someone to pick up and move if it doesn’t make good business sense.”
Schock is not sure exactly how the remedy to the problem will be found, but he is sure that the search needs to begin immediately.
“Do I think we need more ‘shovel ready’ industrial lands? I think the answer is self-evident, the problem is where?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Fashing is following up on any leads that come his way and hoping to convince another business like Cardinal that Hood River County is the ideal location.