Urban areas like Multnomah County are approaching pre-recession economic levels faster than rural communities

After enduring a crushing economic recession, Crook County is finally showing modest signs of a recovery.

The community has gained some jobs during the past two years and the housing market has rebounded with a substantial increase in house prices this past year.

Unfortunately, the recovery in rural communities like Crook County is expected to take far longer than in other more urban regions.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of economic recovery is job growth, and urban communities have seen a quicker return to pre-recession job numbers than rural areas. According to data compiled by Damon Runberg, Central Oregon regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, Multnomah County is closing in on its prerecession job count. At peak employment prior to the recession, they had 460,134 jobs. The number of jobs dropped to 423,943, but has since rebounded to 457,943 as of this July, or 0.4 percent off the peak.

By contrast, Crook County peaked at 7,268 jobs, dropped to 5,273, and has only risen to 5,714, leaving the market 21.4 percent short of the peak pre-recession level.

Runberg attributes the slower recovery to a lack of job diversity. He noted that the tech industry and medical field have generated the most jobs as opposed to natural resource-based industries like construction.

“Crook County has a little bit of that. We have got the data centers, but those are obviously not gigantic employers,” he said. “So, their impact is important, but it isn't going to drive the jobs recovery in the county alone.”

The other problem Runberg noted is that rural communities, and particularly Crook County, depended so heavily on the wood products and construction industries, the recession eliminated a far greater percentage of jobs to replace. Multnomah County, for example, lost 7.9 percent of its total jobs from peak to bottom, while Crook County lost 27.4 percent.

Since the recession hit, local leaders have tried to help diversify the local economy to both spur a recovery and prevent another catastrophic downturn. However, the urban communities enjoy advantages over rural areas when recruiting new businesses.

“Some things that I think the urban areas have going for them that makes our job a little tougher is they have access to things like Interstate 5 and Interstate 84, and a very large workforce that has diverse talents,” said Russ Deboodt, Crook County economic development manager.

At the same time, Crook County has managed to compete with urban communities by providing a few unique characteristics that attract prospective companies. For example, they feature an abundance of shovel-ready industrial land.

“Prineville and Crook County have positioned themselves well from a standpoint of we have the land. The infrastructure is there,” Deboodt said. “All you need to do is come and start building.”

Making that all the sweeter is that Crook County has developed a business-friendly reputation in recent years.

“Things are quick,” Deboodt said. “Things are easy, to the point, and there isn’t a lot of red tape.”

In addition, the presence of the Crook County Open Campus helps market the community to business recruits. Deboodt said that they are particularly encouraged that the facility can help train or retrain workers for their company.

“Open Campus is a huge asset.”

As local leaders work to diversify the economy, the more traditional wood products and construction industries seems poised for recovery as well. While the housing market is not expected to return to the peak of the recent housing boom for quite some time, it has shown improvement in the past year.

“The values of properties in the lower price range have jumped up dramatically,” said Steve Uffelman, realtor with The Associates, in Prineville. He noted that a home that would have sold for $75,000 in 2012 will now sell for as much as $120,000.

Though encouraging news, the same cannot be said for higher-end homes, and Uffelman doesn’t expect that to change right away.

“We have a lot of vacant houses, and those have to be filled up before we see much ratcheting up of the upper-priced housing,” he said.

Despite the modest improvement, like other recovery indicators, Crook County is not faring as well as urban communities. According to John Helmick, CEO of Gorilla Capital, a company that buys and sells properties statewide, the housing market in urban communities is rebounding more quickly than in rural communities.

“We are seeing more consumer confidence. The sales are going through faster. We are seeing strength in the house prices,” he said. “What we are seeing is that the greatest recovery is happening in the metro areas.”

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