Mail Tribune: Signs of Economic Life in the Valley

January 02, 2011

Damian Mann

By Damian Mann

Mail Tribune

Athree-year recession has put Jackson County’s economy in the grips of a deep freeze, but experts say a long-awaited thaw might be in the offing.

“We are seeing those early signs that businesses are beginning to contemplate investments and expansions based on the recovery in the general economy,” said Ron Fox, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc.

Though the area remains dogged by a 13.7 percent unemployment rate and the loss of manufacturing and construction jobs over the past three years, some high-tech companies and food-processing firms are looking at expanding, Fox said.

In addition, other distribution and high-tech companies are looking at relocating here, he said, adding that confidentiality agreements prevent him from disclosing their names.

Another good sign for companies: The ability to borrow from regional banks has improved markedly in the past six months, Fox said.

Temporary-employment agencies also reported an uptick in placements this year over last year, though many of the jobs pay only minimum wage.

Some companies have announced building plans or are pushing forward with projects:

Lithia Motors plans to start The Commons project in downtown Medford this spring. The company will start bulldozing old buildings to make way for its 65,000-square-foot headquarters.

The building and adjacent park space on two city blocks between Riverside Avenue, East Sixth, East Fifth and Bartlett streets is funded by Lithia and the Medford Urban Renewal Agency with hopes of revitalizing downtown.

Lithia has been a strong performer in the stock market, trading at about $5 a share a year ago but more than $14 a share now.

  • Murphy Co. of Eugene reopened the plywood plant in Rogue River in December, hiring 108 workers initially.
  • Jefferson State Forest Products will open a bin manufacturing facility in Grants Pass in 2011 as it closes down its plant in Hayfork, Calif. The company will hire 15 workers initially.
  • Best Buy established its Medford store in August, and Bed, Bath and Beyond will open in the former Linens ‘N’ Things space at the Rogue Valley Mall in the next few months.
  • In the fall, construction on a dentist’s office began at Lone Pine Square, a 180,000-square-foot professional and retail center at North Foothill and Lone Pine roads, after the project sat dormant for four years because of the economy.
  • Batzer Construction has submitted plans to transform the former Moose Lodge into a 40,000-square-foot commercial center known as Pioneer Market Place on the southeast corner of Ross Lane and West McAndrews Road.
  • Jackson County has started preliminary work on a project that could cost up to $14 million to expand the jail and build a new headquarters for the sheriff off Highway 62.

For some areas of the local economy, however, the effects from the recession linger. The Associated General Contractors of America reported this week that 120 of the 337 metropolitan areas in the U.S. it surveyed posted gains in construction employment, but the Medford area had a 10-percent drop in construction employment from November 2009 to November 2010.

Stuart Osmus of Terrasurvey Inc. in Ashland said surveying work has plummeted, and he doesn’t see many jobs lined up for next year.

“This was our worst year,” he said.

In 2009, the company’s second-worst year since it opened 10 years earlier, state road and building projects provided virtually the only construction work in the county, he said.

With no houses being built, property owners don’t need surveys to find their boundaries. With lot prices so low, property owners don’t want to spend the money for surveying.

“Development has really come to a halt,” Osmus said.

Nevertheless, he said he’s seen a little more activity lately. Some property owners who had been hesitant to spend money for a project because of the economy have decided to go ahead rather than wait indefinitely.

Osmus said he goes to Grants Pass and other areas to get jobs in a highly competitive market.

“We’re still in business, and we’re happy to be still working,” he said.

Brenda Edwards, regional manager of Personnel Source of Medford, said temporary hiring was better overall in 2010 than 2009.

“It was better than a year ago, but not as good as five years ago,” she said.

Most of the jobs are minimum wage, meaning they often don’t pay as well as unemployment checks, she said. And families find that a minimum-wage job doesn’t pay enough to cover a babysitter and a second car so that both parents can work.

Edwards said the manufacturing base in the county has been severely undermined, as well, so there is a dearth of higher paying jobs.

“Look around White City — the buildings are empty,” she said. “Many of the buildings have been dismantled. Even if the economy picks up, where are we going to send our workers?”

Edwards said the hiring of temporary workers was good in the fall, but she doesn’t see a lot of activity for January so far, adding that she believes the economy is still fragile in Jackson County.

“It doesn’t feel extremely strong,” she said. “It feels tentative.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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