There a lot going on behind the scenes in Wallowa County

While many people are under the impression that Wallowa County's economy is faltering under the weight of state and national recession and policies, the truth is that county residents have always had to work harder here to keep their heads above water. And things could be a lot worse.

It's easy enough to focus on closed lumber mills, budget crunches in schools and chronically high winter unemployment rates, but as Myron Kirkpatrick pointed out at the recent open house of his nonprofit Business Facilitation program "there's a lot going on behind the scenes."

He went on to talk about a whole string of news businesses that had opened, expanded or changed hands in 2003 with the free business guidance of Business Facilitation.

A partial list included the Dollar Stretcher, Town and Country Pharmacy, Eagle Cap Internet, Collett Collett, Deb's, Lear's, Kevin's Tires, La Laguna's Restaurant, Smart Marketing, BLT, Mad Mary's, Community Small Woods Solutions, Scott's Dirty Dog and Nail Salon, as well as such organizations as Wallowa Resources, Hells Canyon Mule Days and Wallowa Union Railroad. When you think about it, that's quite a list for a county supposedly dying on the economic vine.

Since its founding three years ago, the clients of Business Facilitation have created 79 new jobs, which doesn't sound like much until it was pointed out that a business that creates five jobs here is the equivalent of one with 200 job in Portland.

Business Facilitation, developed from the ground up by local citizens, is one reflection of the can-do, never-say-die spirit, of Wallowa County.

There's also organizations like Wallowa Resources, which have successfully worked to create natural resource jobs despite severe restrictions on the national level and the Target Wallowa County initiative of the county board of commissioners which has been proactive in trying to attract industry here. One tool of Target Wallowa County is a new input-output study that is still in draft form. It includes information that isn't much of a surprise: The population of the county is aging; the biggest increases in employment come in the service and construction sectors; that per capita income is among the lowest in the state. But we were surprised, for example, to find that the number of jobs (full and part time, with some individuals with more than one job) has actually grown by 1,657 between 1969 and 2000, or 58.1 percent.

It also talks about the "shocks" to the economy the county has endured, and the resilience it has shown in spite of the challenges it suffers. The report suggests that it is not only possible for the county to survive, but to thrive, by finding ways to develop potential in terms of "diversity of products, services and career paths. ..."

Through its history Wallowa County has always struggled under the burden - and the blessing - of being located far from population centers and major traffic corridors.

In the most recent report of the Oregon Progress Board, Wallowa County had made some upward movement in terms of its economic ranking among the 36 counties of Oregon. In 1999 Wallowa County was No. 35 out of 36 (second from the bottom) in terms of economic indicators, while in 2003 it moved up to 30.

While that's good news, it's even better news that the county has at the same time maintained its enviable position at or near the top of other - even more important - benchmarks: No. 1 in education; No. 2 in public safety; and No. 4 in social supports.

Many times a situation is all in how you look at it. Even though Wallowa County is still struggling economically - and may always be struggling - most of us still feel it is the best place there is to live. - ELD

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