In mid-December, Clackamas County announced that Tennessee-based Sauter Timber would open a facility in Estacada in 2020 focused on the production of prefabricated building components using cross-laminated timber.
The company's decision was a coup for Clackamas County, which had spent several years working with cities within its boundaries to find ways to replace jobs lost when timber mills in those communities closed.
Jon LeGarza, interim economic development manager for Clackamas County, and Sam Dicke, economic development coordinator, recently sat down with the Business Tribune to talk about the unique economic development challenges the county and its associated cities face, as well as steps that are being taken to attract new companies to the area — all with an eye toward increasing employment opportunities. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Business Tribune: Let's start by talking about the effort by Clackamas County to attract and develop a new cluster industry around mass timber, especially cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Sam Dicke: Clackamas County is very different from a lot of the counties that surround the Portland metropolitan area. It's about 75% timberland, with 50% of the county being in federal timberland (areas). Communities like Estacada and Sandy, all the way out to Canby, they have unique challenges (when compared with) communities like Milwaukie. About two or three years ago, we identified cross-laminated timber as one of these new emerging technologies that could bridge the rural and urban economies. We've got timber coming off the Mt. Hood National Forest that could be (processed) in our rural communities (into materials like CLT) that could then be built into buildings in our urban communities.
Two or three years ago, we identified and started to build a strategy with the intent of getting more CLT projects in the county as well as bringing in a manufacturer. (Sauter Timber) was our first huge win, but we've also got other major projects going on in the county. The Oregon City police station is being built as a CLT (project) now. We've got our courthouse project that's coming up, and we won a wood innovation grant from the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) for $100,000 to support the development of what that would look like — to see a courthouse built out of CLT.
Biz Trib: Oregon, in general, has been doing well economically for nearly a decade now. But there are some rural communities in the state that still are struggling to bounce back from the loss of the timber industry and the Great Recession. Is that one of the challenges that Clackamas County and some of its cities face?
Jon LeGarza: Absolutely. What's really unique about our county is we have 13 cities. We have areas — if you think of Milwaukee (and) Wilsonville — that are urban cities. Oregon City is more urban. But then when you start going east, you get out to those rural cities, and those were cities that did have timber mills in them. You go to Estacada, where there was a 9,000-acre mill site that was right in the middle of the town. You go to Molalla, the same thing. So those are areas in the rural areas (where) we have challenges trying to recruit employment. That's something that we've been focusing on as we move forward here.
Dicke: Just to piggyback off of what Jon said, some of those communities like Sandy and Estacada ... their economic development staff, their city staff have worked really hard to rebrand in those communities with the tourism sector. But there's still a huge need for ... family-wage jobs. I think it's easy to look at Portland and see the change, the shift that has happened. But the rural communities, they're not the rural communities anymore the way everyone thinks of them as being.
Biz Trib: So, how do you bring those diverse interests in line, and what role does Clackamas County play in that effort?
Dicke: Once a month, we bring together our cities for a community round table, where we bring together all the economic development professionals and strategic partners to learn about issues that affect all of our different cities. Clackamas County covers 1,600 square miles. We go all the way up to Government Camp, all the way out to Wilsonville. Our job as the county is to cover that whole 1,600 miles and help bring together those communities to address all the challenges that affect them, which is vast — everything from affordable housing to infrastructure to (the county's) brownfield land bank authority. There are some huge issues that need to be tackled on a regional scale.
Biz Trib: Let's talk a bit about your Grow Clackamas project.
Dicke: (Grow Clackamas) started as a little bit of a brainstorm a couple of months ago, when our team was sitting around and kind of kicking ideas around what we were going to be doing for the next year or so. We got our economic development partners we worked very closely with (who are) in the 13 different cities and communities in Clackamas County together. We said, "Hey, who are some businesses that you guys would like to interact with more closely and honor at an award ceremony?" And then it grew into, well, how are we going to grow Clackamas in the future? What does this initiative look like? (Now) it's really about that taking their economic development programs to the next level, and we're calling it Grow Clackamas.
LeGarza: It's a new campaign for us. We're noticing that companies now are looking at, 'Hey, where's that livability? Where are those parks versus those breweries? What kind of hotspots are in these areas for my employees?'
Biz Trib: The quality of life, the amenities offered, the outdoor recreational opportunities were elements that Reinhard Sauter said convinced his company that Estacada was the right location for a new prefabrication plant. He also said he felt the city's leaders were very trustworthy and genuinely interested in helping them get their business established here.
LeGarza: Right. (Companies) want to know that when they come in with a project, that you can (support) them from cradle to completion. (Companies) want to know, 'Are they going to help me get through the permit process or are there going to be challenges here?' Showing that we really do care, we want you here in our community, is important.
Biz Trib: Some of these communities, like Estacada and Molalla, have pretty sizable pieces of land sitting where the mills used to be. How are these cities and the county working together to make sure that any development that happens at those sites is going to be the right fit?
Jon LeGarza: We work with the city and the (property owner). What we do is look (at different development scenarios) to help market the site. So, for example, we have flatland in Molalla, and we've taken a 25-acre parcel and we've laid it out and said, 'OK, this could be data storage for, like, a Google or an Amazon. What would this look like?' The city can see what the potential is for that site, and at the same time, the property owner can see, and it allows us a way to be able to help them market the site. They need that visioning in some of these communities, and by helping do that visioning exercise, you can start to get behind that and help them (find) a way to market it.
Biz Trib: Basically, what we're talking about are infill projects in these small communities, correct?
LeGarza: That really is what it is. These communities are now starting to fill in these spaces. Industrial is changing … because we're seeing such advancements in technology now. So, you're seeing different uses of those (types of sites). You no longer need a 100-acre parcel to do industrial projects. So, we're now looking at what those other uses can be: mixed-use, commercial, residential.
Dicke: One of the (other) things that we've also been working on is our Brownfield Land Bank Authority, which is a huge priority of the county and a huge initiative that Jon has been taking the lead on for almost two years now in economic development.
LeGarza: In Oregon, there were over 500 mill sites that are in these (rural) cities. When you think about it, that's a lot of mill sites in the state of Oregon. A lot of these mills were adjacent to downtowns, and so in 2015, the state passed legislation to allow cities and counties to establish a brownfield land bank authority. (The goal is to help) communities that have these mills right in the center of their towns ... repurpose that land and clean that land up and provide employment, housing and open spaces. What I like to say is that (Clackamas County) is a trailblazer in the lead on this and the state's been very supportive of what we're doing. It's a great opportunity for Clackamas County to be looking at some of these lands that we can reposition for the whole area.
Land banks allow a way for us to bring dollars to the table to clean up (those properties in preparation for future developent). When you say 'brownfield site,' a lot of times developers will just turn and run. So, if we have the ability to be that intermediary ... (and) help reposition that parcel, we're going to put those lands back on our tax rolls.
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