Fast growth a byproduct of good leadership
Before the big, bad recession rocked Crook County, decimating its housing market and pushing the unemployment rate into the low 20 percent range, the community was enjoying a period of substantial growth.
A glance around the area revealed numerous homes under construction, houses that people were eager to snap up in spite of rising home costs. The population of Prineville eclipsed the 10,000 mark, and while Deschutes County was getting a lot of attention for growth in the national media, news had also come out that Crook County wasn't far behind and among the fastest growing communities in the state.
Then came the crash. A recession ground all of the growth to an abrupt halt. Like a whiplash, Crook County had gone from making news as one of the fastest growing communities in the state to one of the counties hit hardest by the economic recession.
Cuts became the norm at the local government level and in the schools. Jobs evaporated as Prineville's reliance on wood products — which was at the root of the growth during boom times — had become a cautionary tale in what a lack of economic diversity can cause.
At the time, it was hard to imagine that Crook County would ever again be recognized as one of the fastest growing communities in Oregon. People were leaving. When the census was conducted in 2010, the population sign was changed from five digits back to four.
But as 2018 nears its conclusion, Prineville and Crook County is once again on the same perch it occupied toward the end of the prior decade. According to population estimates from Portland State University, Crook County was the second-fastest growing county in Oregon — second only to Deschutes County. The community gained 605 people from July 2017 to July 2018, a 2.7 increase in population in the span of a year. At 10,010 people, Prineville's population is back to five digits.
While some of the growth can be attributed to a nationwide economic rebound, local leaders who shepherded Crook County through the recession years deserve much of the credit. Government officials cut expenses while committing to economic diversification. Evidence that a community could not thrive on wood products alone prompted a search for new industries, the most noteworthy of which is the data center sector. As many local officials like to point out, Crook County is now the home of timber, tires and technology.
The good news is the changes that are spurring local growth now will become the foundation on which the community relies when the next recession inevitably occurs. The current community leadership recognizes that a time will come again when an economic downturn will strain Crook County's job market and resources. Long-term budget planning and running lean have become the norm as has an ongoing search for new industries to further diversify the local economy. Meanwhile, Prineville now boasts a new hospital and new school, and a new jail is months from completion.
The growth is worth celebrating, and hopefully it lasts for a long time, but also worth celebrating is that next time things get tough, Crook County is better prepared.