About a month ago, I was chatting with a business leader — not a resident of the mid-valley, but someone who has been watching this region for years — and the topic came up again.
You know the topic: It's about how the mid-valley (which, for our purposes today, we'll define as Benton, Linn and Lane counties) could be a regional economic powerhouse. The three counties combined have nearly 600,000 residents, according to the latest estimates from Portland State University's Population Research Center. These three counties have four of the state's 11 most populous cites. They include two of the state's leading universities.
The business leader noted that the region has made some strides toward working together economically and pointed, for example, to the business incubation and accelerator programs that have sprung up at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon.
And yet, the business leader said (and here, if I recall correctly, he shook his head ruefully), the mid-valley still shies away from this notion that it could function best as a regional economy.
This region, he said, could be the next big thing on the West Coast. "So why isn't it happening? I don't know."
"There's something in the DNA (in this region) that needs to be unlocked," he said.
Arguably no one in the mid-valley has done more to try to unlock that DNA than Greg Hamann, the president of Linn-Benton Community College. Hamann recently was named the winner of the first "Chair's Award" from the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments for service to the Linn, Benton and Lincoln county region. He was nominated for the award by Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa, the current board chair of the Council of Governments.
Konopa nominated Hamann in part for his work to bring educators and employers together through programs like Pipeline, a collaborative effort with partners like the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce and private businesses to help build connections between students and future jobs in local manufacturing industries. That's the kind of work, Konopa said, that helps to "strengthen our regional economy."
It's a nice award, and well-deserved. But I also know that Hamann has run into considerable resistance, on both sides of the Willamette River, to the idea that we all can benefit from thinking about our economy in a regional way.
In a conversation last week, Hamann acknowledged that resistance, but pointed to the progress we've already made and vowed to keep pushing the point: "So much of getting somewhere is a matter of persistence."
Much of the resistance he's encountered, he said, has been expected: "I would say that we are simply a microcosm of Oregon, only more so." The state, he said, is focused on independence, sometimes to a fault: It's the attitude, he said, that "We don't do it that way in Oregon. Our region is sort of hyper-fixated on that kind of thing."
In some areas, that stubbornness can be a good thing. In others, though — including efforts to redefine an economy to unlock its full potential — it can blind us to opportunity: "It really limits our capacity to do this in an intentional and effective manner," Hamann said. "Everybody has a little kingdom, and this is seen as a threat."
That notion of the mid-valley as a microcosm also is useful in illuminating another point: The state's urban areas are enjoying an economic boom, but that's not always the case with its rural areas. That urban-rural split also is at work in the mid-valley, especially when you look at areas that are more isolated from its bigger cities — the eastern part of Linn County, for example, or the southern portions of Benton. Thinking about the mid-valley's economy as a regional entity helps ensure that those areas aren't forgotten.
As my visitor from a month ago suggested, business leaders have a big role to play in rethinking our economy. That's why a project spearheaded by the Council of Governments sounds intriguing: The general idea is to go out and talk to a number of businesspeople to get a better sense of their visions for the mid-valley's economy. The results from the work should be available early next year. Hamann suspects that those results could be eyeopening for those people who still doubt that a regional approach to the economy would be valuable.
"Maybe business is more parochial than we think it is," he said, "but I don't think so."
Hamann also hopes that the survey provides more of a common vocabulary to talk about a regional economy. And who knows? Once you start changing that vocabulary, maybe you start changing our economic DNA, one strand at a time. (mm)