I wrote last month about the local housing crisis, speaking to the new workforce housing group and to the people who are choosing to help retain and build workforce housing with their own properties.
Some readers apparently thought that I was taking a shot at the idea of “profit” last month. Not so. I have no quibble with people making legitimate and reasonable profit. I do have a problem with maximizing profit — in housing or in any other economic endeavor — being a sole or primary goal. People and our needs are more complicated than that.
And the work that is going on now in Wallowa County is testament to a broader concept of wealth, one that is more than money in the bank, a stock market portfolio, acres of land or numbers of properties. This concept of wealth includes good health care and educational systems, employment and recreational opportunities and the availability and affordability of food and housing. It might sound cute or trite, but this concept of wealth includes neighborliness — community.
My friend Tony Robinson, a retired pastor with deep roots in Wallowa County, quoted a University of Chicago study as summarized by Axios in his blog. It records the “tectonic shifts” in people’s attitudes about what’s important from a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from 1998 to the present:
• Patriotism is very important: Dropped from 70% to 38%.
• Religion is very important: Dropped from 62% to 39%.
• Having children is very important: Dropped from 59% to 30%.
• Community involvement is very important: Dropped from 47% to 27%.
• Money is very important: Rose from 31% to 43%.
I’d have to go back more than 25 years to gauge these findings against similar statistics in Wallowa County. In the early 1970s, the population of Wallowa County was about 7,000, which included almost 2,000 students — at that time grades 1-12, as there were no public kindergartens. Today, our county population has grown to 7,400, while school enrollment has shrunk to fewer than 900 students.
More retirees, you say? Well, yes, but Dave Smyth, then the superintendent in Wallowa, told me years ago that the biggest factor in school population decline is smaller families. Look around you and find the families with six children, and see those young workers with one, two or none. As noted above, the importance of having children — and especially having large families — has declined.
Although I haven’t checked the stats recently, I assume that the number of farms and ranches that provide a primary family income has continued to decline, and I know that there are more retail shops on Main Streets in Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph than there were 50 years ago.
There are also more doctors, nurses, physical therapists, massage therapists, counselors, veterinarians, bed-and-breakfasts and motel rooms. There are more workers now than there were 50 years ago.
At that time, or a bit before I came in 1971, Mrs. Evans had a boarding house in Wallowa. She had been widowed, and with guts and gumption provided food and housing to many. The small rooms above Homan’s Drug Store, now the new air/hotel at the corner of Main and River in Enterprise, were rented by the week. The bathroom was down the hall, but it was good enough for sheepherders on break from the canyon and Smokey, who came to town every summer for several years and walked the streets with Smiley, the town dog. Rental houses were tough to find in Enterprise, but there were places in Wallowa, with rents cheaper than the $90 a month we paid in Enterprise.
The 4-H program was huge, with over 100 leaders, as I recall; there were several strong churches — Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, LDS, Catholic. And a bunch of locals was transforming an old weekend ski club that had morphed into a rope-tow hill behind Wallowa Lake into the current T-Bar facility at Ferguson Ridge.
The community, meaning all of Wallowa County, seems to have the internal machinery to renew itself and repair its injuries. The mill closure in Wallowa caused a housing surplus there; the school held the community together when storefronts closed. Joseph, too, had empty storefronts — and a school that competed with Enterprise and Wallowa in the same league. A hospital and medical staff down to two docs in the 1980s was rejuvenated with strong leadership and community support. We now have a state-of-the-art hospital, more docs per capita than most cities and a local foundation that raises over $100,000 each year for improvements. Many, many local farms and businesses support it generously.
This community still has problems, but we are rich in the reserves it takes to solve problems. Some community-minded individuals are stepping up to take on workforce housing. We’ll let them take their profits, which will include the community’s thanks.
Rich Wandschneider is the director of the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.
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