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The year ahead should bring slow but steady economic growth for Corvallis, Oregon and the nation as a whole, a trio of speakers told the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce. Its annual economic forecast was delivered Wednesday morning at the Corvallis Country Club.

Manager Tom Nelson of the Corvallis-Benton County Economic Development Office pointed to a number of encouraging signs in the local economy. After more than a decade of decline, he noted, manufacturing employment in Benton County leveled off last year at about 3,000 jobs and was starting to show a modest rebound.

He also pointed out that property values have now recovered from the 2008 recession and that construction activity, especially commercial projects, showed strong growth the past two years and was well above pre-recession levels.

Led by NuScale Power’s rapid expansion, the six clients in the city’s enterprise zone now can boast 299 additional employees — more than twice the initial hiring estimates, Nelson said. He expects to add two or three more businesses to the list in the next year or two.

And over the past year, Nelson said, his office has assisted with 34 startups, 19 expansions, six retentions and 31 recruitment proposals.

“We’ve been pretty busy,” he told the audience of about 70 people. “We think we’re making a difference in the economy.”

Oregon State University President Ed Ray highlighted OSU’s economic contributions, starting with some updated figures from a 2011 study conducted by consulting firm ECONorthwest.

Last year, Ray said, the university accounted for more than $1.3 billion worth of economic activity in Linn and Benton counties, a 42.8 percent increase since the original study. The figure includes operating and capital expenditures, as well as spending by OSU students and visitors.

Also in 2014, Ray said, the updated study showed OSU was responsible for creating 25,110 jobs in the mid-valley, counting direct hires, employment indirectly supported by university operations and positions induced by OSU employee spending.

Ray bragged about the success of the university’s capital campaign, which closed last year after raising more than $1.1 billion in donations; the $285 million it attracted last year in research funding, over $100 million more than the University of Oregon and Portland State University combined; and the 21 startup businesses launched in the past 18 months by the OSU Advantage Accelerator.

“Oregon State will continue to be part of the Corvallis area’s economic activities for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Quite simply, economic development is part of our DNA.”

Acknowledging that OSU’s growing student body has had some negative impacts on livability, Ray repeated previous promises to cap enrollment at 28,000 on the Corvallis campus and predicted annual growth rates of no more than 1 to 2 percent until that ceiling is reached.

But he also pointed to the upside of having all those college students in town, claiming they pumped $284 million into the local economy during the last academic year.

“We also must recognize that students contribute in very real and valuable ways to our economy,” Ray said.

Pat O’Connor, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, wrapped up the meeting with a look at hiring prospects for the new year.

Overall, he said, we can expect to see a roughly 2.6 percent employment increase statewide in 2015, continuing last year’s trend and roughly keeping pace with national job growth.

That said, unemployment rates in Oregon most likely will stay about the same. That’s because workers who got laid off in the Great Recession and dropped out of the job market for a time might be ready to jump back in now that more companies are hiring.

“At this point we’ve flipped over to the other side of the coin,” O’Connor said. “A lot of people who lost jobs are coming back into the labor force, so we’re dealing with a sticky unemployment rate.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald