John Day and other cities in Grant County are not short on land for economic development, but finding a way to get businesses to invest in the area is still an open question.
That was the take-away from a presentation at the May 28 John Day City Council meeting by Johnson Economics, which recently completed a draft 71-page economic opportunities analysis for Grant County and its cities.
The report includes economic and demographic trends, target industry analysis, employment and land forecasts and next steps to promote economic development.
Referring to the report’s tables and graphs, City Manager Nick Green said Grant County was close to a 40-year low for employment, but the past four years in a row have seen some improvement.
That indicates the economy may be turning around, Green said. The rest of the nation is experiencing strong employment, but Grant County is just “late in the game,” he added.
Consultant Brendan Buckley noted that Grant County has taken significant losses in past decades. However, using industry-specific growth rates and a regional forecast, the report projects 0.8% annual growth in the county and John Day over the next 20 years, which will bring 533 new jobs in the county and 330 new jobs in John Day over the next two decades.
According to the report, Green noted, John Day has five times the acreage for industrial development than the nearest other city in Grant County and seven times the commercial acreage.
Green said he saw that as a positive, as growth potential, but the city was not attracting customers for its industrial park at the airport. The city was likewise well supplied with land for housing development, he said.
Phil Stenbeck, the Eastern Oregon regional representative for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, which provided a grant to pay for the study, said state legislators were aware of that potential. He said the city’s industrial park had been discussed at state Regional Solutions meetings.
Buckley noted that John Day is not on a major rail or highway route, but the steps the city has taken to improve its economic position puts it ahead of other Eastern Oregon communities facing similar difficulties.
Developing strategic plans was one thing, but finding the funding to promote economic growth was another matter, Green said.
Stenbeck agreed but noted that in places like Prineville, businesses that came to the community were willing to pay for needed infrastructure — but the city needed to have a plan ahead of time to take advantage of that.
In other council news:
• Conceptual plans by landscape architect firm Walker Macy for the Innovation Gateway project were presented to the council. The plans will be used to apply for USDA Rural Development and Ford Family Foundation grants needed to rehabilitate the former mill property.
Phase 1 of the plans includes roads, parking and trails connecting the new commercial greenhouses and the former Oregon Pine planer shed. Drawings of the planer shed suggest how it could be used as an open-air pavilion for farmers markets and other functions.
The rest of the former mill site south of the John Day River could be used for a 150-170 room hotel, a water garden around the former sawmill building, a riverfront beach and a lake.
Green noted that the drawings represent a 20-year plan, not a two-year plan. Reclaimed water from the city’s new wastewater treatment plant could be discharged into the lake to prevent scum formation.
Public Works Director Monte Legg referred to photos of the seasonal lake in the Eagle and the positive response by the public. Some people even suggested letting the lake freeze for winter activities.
The planer shed pavilion will be constructed in a way to allow for seasonal flooding. Part of the site will inevitably flood and is unbuildable, Green said, “so why not a lake?”
• The John Day fiscal year 2019-20 budget approved by the city budget committee has been reduced by about $3.1 million from the proposed budget to $10.8 million. The council will vote on the final budget at its June 25 meeting.
Green said the reduction mostly results from an expected agreement with Oregon Telephone Corporation to apply for a USDA ReConnect grant rather than the city to improve internet access in Grant County.
• The council recognized the extra work Officer Scott Moore took on during the transition between two police chiefs in 2018. Moore has been promoted to sergeant effective June 1.