On Wednesday the Jackson County Board of Commissioners passed an official resolution of concern for Harry & David's financial woes. You may have missed it. As a "consent calendar" item, it passed quietly with no public opportunity for comment or questions.
The commissioners probably didn't see controversy here. Who could argue with the "Whereas" lines that listed the all the ways H&D has benefited our valley over the years? Or even the "Therefore" section that offered the county's unspecified support for the struggling company? (Note for the future file: if at some point county support takes the form of a public goody-basket for H&D's Wall Street owners — perhaps a special land-use waiver to let them "improve cash flow" by urbanizing prime orchard land — we'll have plenty to talk about. The story rarely ends well when communities try to buy the loyalty of major absentee corporations.)
The board's action seems to be a ceremonial expression of the concern most of us feel at the prospect of H&D's collapse or dismemberment, and the suffering that would impose on our friends and neighbors. Fair enough. But it's also fair to say this resolution looks more like an official version of closing your eyes and thinking happy thoughts than it does leadership. We need more than that.
What would leadership look like at this tough moment? Here are three possibilities:
- Spearheading a shot at employee ownership: More than a few local governments around the country have facilitated employee buy-outs that revived stumbling companies and saved family-wage jobs. This may be a longshot for H&D. Two key ingredients for success are a competent work force, ready and able to take over, and a seller whose profit motive is tempered by an urge to benefit the employees and community. We definitely have the first here but probably not the second. But isn't even an outside chance at a competently-run employee-owned H&D worth a serious effort by county officials? (And if that's going on behind closed doors, more power to them.)
- Contracting more consistently with local vendors: Here, unlike efforts to change H&D ownership, the Commissioners are squarely in the drivers' seat. Last year roughly two-thirds of the $80 million Jackson County spent for contracted goods and services went to out-of-county firms. Those are your property tax dollars and mine flying out of the valley at electronic speed, when some of them could be nourishing local firms that hire local people who in turn buy goods and services from local firms who hire local people. Those tax dollars are raw material for building a job base that's not at the mercy of investment managers and budget-cutting CFOs in New York or Arkansas or North Dakota. How about a new county procurement policy that flips today's ratio upside down, so that two out of three contracting dollars go to local vendors by 2014? That should allow enough time to work out the details of localizing county spending while still getting the most bang for the taxpayers' buck.
- Brokering solutions for solid but troubled local businesses: Jackson County lost a reliable, community-minded small employer this month when Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. called due a note from its revolving loan fund to Alysson's of Ashland. This wasn't some fly-by-night operation, but a high-quality business that over 15 years employed dozens of local people and pulled millions of dollars into the valley economy. Alysson's ran into trouble by opening a second store at exactly the wrong time, and wasn't meeting its loan agreement. But its owners were trying and thought they had negotiated a repayment adjustment that would keep their doors open and their staff working. SOREDI thought otherwise.
As one of SOREDI's primary funders, county government could have something to say about this. Something such as "Qualified, high-integrity, proven local employers are a vital resource in this county, and we have to go the extra mile to help them succeed. Find a financially responsible way to do that." In terms of real-world results, brokering a new agreement to keep this small retailer in business would help our economy and local workers more than a dozen lofty resolutions praising Harry & David.
Let's be honest: None of this has easy solutions. Steering an economy in a different direction, no matter how many H&D-style wake-up calls we get that the world is changing, is hard and uncertain work. That's why commissioners should undertake it now — unless they want to be passing resolutions of concern for a lot more failing businesses in the months and years to come.
Jeff Golden is a 39-year county resident, a former county commissioner and author of "UNAFRAID: A Novel of the Possible" (www.unafraidthebook.com). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.