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Northwest Gains Jobs, But 'Nothing' In Some Small Towns

Chris Lehman


JOHN DAY, Ore. - The Northwest continues to add jobs, slowly but surely. But the unemployment rate in some rural parts of the region remains stubbornly high.

This story starts at the state capitol in Salem during the most recent quarterly revenue forecast. State economist Mark McMullen was describing Oregon's economic outlook to a panel of lawmakers.

McMullen said things are improving, but "about an hour south of the Columbia River, we've seen no job gains since the worst of the recession."

Grant County, Oregon, is more like two hours south of the Columbia River. And it's where I found Dave Traylor. He was hanging out in a bar in downtown Canyon City. Both Traylor and the saloon look like they’re straight out of an old western.

"We have the original swinging doors that went on this building," Traylor says. "We've got old photographs on the wall, elk horns, we've got some mounted deer, antelope, there's a bear skin, we've got an ox yolk hanging down from the ceiling. We've got an old still from back during the Depression era …"

They even have what Traylor calls "rinky dink piano music." These days, the piano music is on a CD. And in fact, this bar is open just one weekend a year. It's run by volunteers for an annual festival that celebrates the discovery of gold here back in 1862.

Dave Traylor's been helping with the festival for more than 40 years. And maybe it's not the best economic indicator, but people just aren't buying as much beer as they used to.

"Our best year was in 1974. We sold 53 kegs of beer here in one weekend," Traylor recalls. "Now we're down, we sell maybe 13 to 15."

Beer sales aren't the only thing headed down in Grant County. The population has dropped ten percent over the past three decades. Public schools here have lost nearly half their students since the late 90s.

Just about the only thing that's stayed high is the unemployment rate. It soared past 13 percent in 2008. It's still there.

Just up the road from Canyon City is John Day. Cooks are getting ready for the lunchtime rush at The Outpost restaurant. One of the regulars here is Mark Webb, a fence contractor who also serves as Grant County Judge.

"We don't have easy access to freeways or railheads," Webb says. "So that limits the access we have to industry or industrial development."

But Webb says it's not just geography that's limiting Grant County. Like many here, Webb blames federal forest policies backed by environmental groups that have limited logging.

"The only option for us to develop a strong economy is for the feds to take their jobs seriously and treat their natural assets as they should be treated," he says. "If they start to do that, then we'll start to pick up."

The federal government owns roughly two-thirds of the land in Grant County. Since the 1980s, all but one of about a half-dozen mills here have shut their doors. But Webb concedes it's not just federal policies that led to the mills closing. The timber market itself has suffered. Even technology has played a role.

"We've got equipment now that simply takes the place of a lot of manpower," Webb says. "So we'll never need the labor force that we did in the past."

Young people in Grant County are taking that message to heart. The population is rapidly graying. Nearly a quarter of the county's residents is over 65.

That age bracket includes most of the diners here at The Outpost, including Don Hansen. He's a retired millworker, but don't look for any of his children to follow in his footsteps.

"They all moved away because there was no work here for them," Hansen says. "There's nothing here."

Because young people are leaving, the population of Grant County is dropping. But there is one group of new residents: retirees. The number of seniors is not just holding steady. It's increasing. Larry Henderson was lured here from Tacoma, Washington.

"You could go to the store there and not know anybody. For six months, not see anybody you know," Henderson says. "You go to the store you can't get out for an hour-and-a-half because you gotta talk to everybody in the store. I love it here."

But Henderson and his wife didn't move to John Day on a whim. They came here because their daughter married a local millworker. But like so many here, their son-in-law lost his job and the couple moved away.

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Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network