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Report: economic rebound slower in rural communities

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Employment Department finds that most rural counties still remain behind pre-recession levels

Much has lately been made of Oregon's record-low unemployment rate and job growth amidst an economic recovery statewide.

However, a new report compiled by staff from the Oregon Employment Department shows that the growth is occurring more slowly in rural counties versus more populous urban areas in the state.

The report covers the employment and economic trends of 23 rural counties, reveals that 17 of them remain below peak employment prior to the latest recession. The economic downturn occurred nationwide from late 2007 to June 2009, according to report authors, but they note that recovery still continues in many rural counties to this day. The jobs that have returned to non-metro counties have been largely low wage while jobs in high-wage industries remain below pre-recession levels in rural areas.

Damon Runberg, Central Oregon's regional economist with the Employment Department, helped compile the 41-page report and believes it will help more people realize how uneven the economic recovery in Oregon has been.

"We came to realize really quickly that a lot of the stuff is going to be an eye-opener to those people living in urban centers, that there is another economic narrative going on in the state," he said. "The experiences they are having in big cities aren't reflective of what is happening everywhere in the state. The goal was to really give a voice to the experiences or validate the voices of the experiences of people in rural Oregon."

One of the primary drivers behind the recovery discrepancy has been what the report calls a two-part demographic challenge. A larger share of the rural workforce is at least 55 years old, while the rural population below the age of 18 is showing long-term decline. In all of rural Oregon during the past five years, there was a net neutral increase (subtracting births and deaths) of 10 people.

"The more you dig into this aging of the workforce combined with very little substantive population gains from your prime working age or your youth population, it means there is a whole heck of a lot of job opportunities that will be available in the near future from replacement openings as people retire," Runberg said. "The conundrum is how do you sell those positions when you are not having young people move to your community?"

And while the replacement job openings could be viewed as job growth from the perspective of a job seeker, they do not represent any increase in the total of number of jobs available.

Although the report does not seem to shed rural counties in a positive light, Runberg stresses that the information does not spell doom and gloom for areas like Crook County.

"I think there is a going to be a lot of opportunities to find work if rural communities are the places that people want to live," he said. "I think the data centers are positive influences in communities. They provide some employment opportunities, and they provide some construction opportunities."

Runberg notes that data centers will not replace the wood products industry as a job creator, but he doesn't think they need to for the local economy to thrive. The goal, he said, is to find a lot of small, diverse industries so Crook County doesn't have to depend so heavily on just one of them.

"Data centers are a great start to that," he remarked.

Leisure and hospitality has also made positive gains locally, Runberg noted, which he feels will benefit the community and its economy in the long term.

"Some of those leisure industries have an amazing ripple effect," he said, "where they can really highlight the community and have a secondary effect of leading to population growth as well as business growth."