History: How did we get here?
History seems to repeat itself. In the early 1900s, the Ponderosa Pine resource was discovered near Prineville. Prineville was primarily a ranching community. Small sawmill operations were started in the forest outside the community.
After World War II, when the demand for housing skyrocketed, five large sawmills were consolidated in Prineville. Millions and millions of board feet of lumber left Prineville on our city-owned railroad. From 1945 to 1960, Prineville built five sawmills, three remanufacturing plants, Les Schwab Tires was founded and grew, Bowman Dam was constructed (opening up 20,000 acres of irrigated farm land), housing was in short supply, causing a building boom, and jobs were plentiful.
The community built new schools, a new hospital, new roads, new parks, a swimming pool, and developed a vibrant downtown.
1980s through 2010: Tough times for Prineville.
As the forest products industry declined in the 1980s and '90s, Prineville was starting to struggle. By the early 2000s, forest policy had eliminated the sawmill industry in Prineville, putting factory workers, loggers, truck drivers and suppliers out of work. When the Great Recession hit, Prineville became Oregon's leader in unemployment in excess of 20 percent.
Tough times leading to taking chance on tech.
In 2009, our community was in trouble, the mills were gone, the secondary wood products factories were barely hanging on, and Les Schwab had moved its head office to Bend, taking 300 jobs away.
At that time, we were reaching out through economic development to leverage what attributes we had, which were low-cost land, underutilized railroad, potential water and wastewater capacity, competitive tax incentives, and most importantly, "business-minded leaders in place in the city and county."
Data center site selectors came to town looking for a business relationship with local government. We responded by taking some significant risks, committing some of our resources, and realized we had little to lose.
We theorized that landing one data center project would at least be an economic shot in the arm that could at least help build a bridge to help us through the recession. We competed head to head with many other communities in Oregon as well as throughout the U.S. Our leaders — most of which came from the private sector — responded at the "speed of business" and won over the site selectors.
The data center business started building in 2010. Little did we know that in the next five years would bring billions of dollars of investment, thousands of construction workers, and as of 2018, more than 500 direct jobs averaging more than $60,000 per year, with 70 percent of those jobs held by locals. It is not uncommon to see forest products factory workers, Les Schwab production workers, and even fast-food workers who have transitioned to the tech based workforce in Prineville.
Today: History repeating
The economic momentum that the data centers have injected into our community has been leveraged community wide. We successfully passed a school bond measure (first in 30 years) and built a new elementary school and re-conditioned existing school buildings. St. Charles built a new hospital, the city purchased additional open space (400 acres), county passed a bond for a new jail, efforts are underway to replace an aging swimming pool, the city expanded both water and wastewater capacities, implementing state-of-the-art aquifer storage and recharge system for water, and wetland process for wastewater.
We find ourselves recruiting new industry on our city-owned railroad, returning the operation to profitability. Our City/County Airport is expanding and updating and has created 30 new jobs on site. The community is focused on economic diversification, and with the data centers has come renewable energy opportunities we hope to develop as part of the economy tied back to overall forest health. The unemployment last reported at 5 percent.
Not unlike the economic boom of the 1950s and '60s, we have a housing crunch. The community has responded with stable controlled housing development that includes both low cost and senior housing opportunities.
Instead of forest products being one of the economic drivers, the tech industry is filling that gap. The community has not forgotten its history though, and we are working toward re-inventing our resource-based industries and tying the opportunity back to healthy forest management. We also have worked hard to provide water certainty to our agriculture base, which is another big economic driver we must protect.
So, history has indeed repeated itself in Prineville and Crook County. Our challenge is to learn from the past, protect our rich history, continue to diversify, and maintain the quality of life that makes this place special.
Steve Forrester is the Prineville City Manager. He can be reached at 541-447-5627.
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