A Tale of Two Oregon Towns

Photograph: Leah Nash for The New York Times
Photograph: Leah Nash for The New York Times

Two different papers today published looks at two different cities in Oregon that have suffered economic downturns in the past quarter-century.

The Oregonian‘s Laura Oppenheimer wrote an article about The Dalles, where Google has decided to buy 30 acres for a new server facility. In The New York Times, Erick Eckholm writes about Oakridge, a former logging town which faces a grim future. And present.

The Dalles is a town of 12,500, about 85 miles west of Portland on the scenic Columbia Gorge and Interstate 84. Its economy is based on its port and fruit and wheat farming, but for nearly half a century it was also the site of aluminum smelters that took advantage of the cheap hydropower produced by nearby Bonneville Dam. Oakridge — about 55 miles southeast of Eugene — has a population now of 4,500. It was a mill town. It’s not on any interstate. It’s in the foothills of the Cascades, which is a beautiful setting — my family passed through there all the time when I was young on the way to some camping trip or Boy Scout hike — but it’s a good two-and-a-half hours from Portland’s airport.

Oakridge’s plight is described in some of the numbers Eckholm cites:

About 700 Oakridge residents, from a population of about 4,500 in Oakridge and the surrounding area, visit a charity food pantry each month to pick up boxes of groceries worth $100 apiece. Two-thirds of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning their families are near the poverty line or below it. About 260 of the town’s 1,200 housing units are single-width trailers.

Jobs at the mills paid wages “roughly equal to $20 or $30 an hour in today’s terms.” That’s $40-60K if you don’t factor in mill shutdowns (fairly common depending on harvesting schedules) and overtime (ditto). The last mill closed more than 15 years ago.

Google was lured to The Dalles by the same cheap power that drew the aluminum smelters, the last of which closed for the final time in 2000. Land speculation since the announcement drove home prices up 40% last year alone, although the median home price is seill only about half what it is in Hood River, just a couple dozen miles closer to Portland (both of which are cheap compared to Google’s home territory in the Bay Area).

But even the Google windfall isn’t a slam-dunk win for the locals:

Google’s ability to resuscitate the economy is unclear. The company has kept project details secret except to say it plans to hire 50 to 100 people, some area residents. That would be at most 1 percent of Wasco County’s 10,000 jobs.

Randy Elliott, who worked in the aluminum industry on and off for two decades, was laid off a few weeks ago. He’s looking at options across Oregon and beyond, relying on his experience in wastewater treatment and carpentry.

Google, he says, is one possibility. But rumors change almost daily as to whether the company will hire most workers locally. If not, Elliott says, “they’re not going to be welcomed very well.”

As Oppenheimer notes, change has been underway in The Dalles since before Google showed up in town. Its proximity to Portland, transportation, and recreation make it ideal for businesses like Google who are looking for lifestyle-friendly expansion or relocation. That said, it’s a tricky proposition, even for a place as unique as The Dalles.

Unfortunately, Oakridge isn’t unique. There are a lot of little places like Oakridge in Oregon — and other states — that need help. And difficult as the challenge of reinvention facing The Dalles is, the challenge of Oakridge is much, much greater.