One of the most useful things that came out of last week’s “State of the Region” conference in Lebanon is a groundbreaking report that offers a broad picture of how the mid-valley is faring.
The report is available on the website of the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, which prepared it and organized the conference; a link to the report is available in the online version of this column.
A bit of necessary background: The Council of Governments was created by governmental entities in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties, and is charged with carrying out a variety of local, state and federal programs on behalf of those governments.
Fred Abousleman, executive director of the Council of Governments, has made the creation of the report, a year or so in the making, one of his priorities. The result of the council’s labor is an extremely useful document that allows citizens to take a look at this three-county region.
It’s a broader view that, sometimes, the region’s leaders have a hard time focusing on. To be fair, you can’t really blame them for that failure: No one gets elected to a government position to serve all three counties, so the focus of local officials tends to stay, well, local. And, as Abousleman noted in an interview last week, it’s awfully easy to fall prey to the geological boundaries in the region, with the Willamette River dividing Linn and Benton counties and the Coast Range, for all intents and purposes, dividing Benton and Lincoln counties.
But, increasingly, those boundaries don’t mean anything to the people who live here, people who think nothing of commuting to a job that could be located anywhere in the region (or, for that matter, anywhere up and down Interstate 5). The geography really divides us,” Abousleman said. “The people, though, they’re moving.”
Still, it can be hard for any of us to see the broader picture that comes into focus when you pull back and view the whole region. And the view from that broader perspective, Abouselman said, is almost breathtakingly hopeful: “We’re well-educated across the three counties,” he said. “We have a lot more wealth than we think we do. Innovation in the valley is massive. … People want to stay in the mid-valley. … It’s the perfect ecosystem for families.”
To wit, the report found that nearly two-thirds of the adult population of the region have at least some college education. Median household income in the region is higher here than in any of the other comparable regions the study examined. Innovation in the region, as measured by the number of patents issued per capita, is a bright spot — and the report found that the innovation is not limited to Hewlett-Packard and Oregon State University.
It’s not all roses, of course, and Abousleman isn’t pretending that it is. Some communities in the region still are stuggling, especially in areas that used to be heavily reliant on the wood-products industry. The cost of housing is beginning to emerge as a region-wide issue, and not just in Benton County.
But, overall, Abousleman said, the picture that emerges from the report is one of big potential. And the report, which the Council of Governments plans to frequently update, is of real value in helping residents track the broader view.
It also helps to have events such as the one the council sponsored last week in Lebanon; it’s the sort of thing that can compel officials to break out of their local grooves from time to time. Abouselman noted that the meeting offered the first opportunity for some of the participants to meet each other face-to-face. “We get enough people from different towns in the same room,” he said, “and we start to see the commonalities.” (mm)
Mike McInally is editor of the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times. Email him at email@example.com.