Encouraging signs

The obvious question after last week's get-together between Jackson County commissioners and Medford City Council is "what took them so long?"

The city and county leaders work across the street from each other and yet rarely meet to compare notes on the issues they both know are crucial to the valley's future. It was clear both groups are on the same page when it comes to land use and economic development, and the cooperative atmosphere was an encouraging sign.

On land use, inaccurately classified land in Southern Oregon has long been a frustration for local officials who must deal with the state's one-size-fits-all rules. Land that would be prime agricultural property in the Willamette Valley often is not good for any crop here because of soil types and water issues — and yet it may be designated Exclusive Farm Use. Forest Resource land that has few or no trees makes little sense either.

Senate Bill 3615, a legislative measure that would have given local officials more flexibility, died in committee in 2010. Local leaders hope to see it revived, although land-use planning advocates will be sure to oppose it.

There are good reasons to protect truly viable farm and forest land, and it's important to make sure any changes would preserve that protection. But marginal land, especially adjacent to existing development, should be allowed to be reclassified.

Monday's joint meeting also addressed job-creation efforts. New collaborative efforts including the county's Economic Action Initiative grant program and the Sustainable Valley Technology Group are a welcome addition to the efforts of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and The Chamber to attract business to the region.

At the same time, it's important to recognize what are true barriers to economic growth here and what are favorite scapegoats. Acting City Manager Bill Hoke brought up a lack of right-to-work laws — which make it more difficult for workers to unionize — as a reason why companies don't want to come here.

It's true that Oregon is not a right-to-work state, but this region is hardly a bastion of union power. In fact, wages are consistently lower here than elsewhere in the state. That ought to make the area more attractive to new business, not less.

All in all, the new cooperative attitude among city and county leaders, coupled with fresh approaches to encouraging new investment, make us hopeful for a better economic outlook in 2012 and beyond.

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