Any-Town, USA

Don’t turn farmland into industrial parks

Take a drive out Highway 99 to Clear Lake Road and turn west. As soon as you leave the busy industrial highway you are in another world, instantly surrounded by green, open farmland. You experience a vista that stretches all the way to the Coast Range to the west. 

That’s what I see, and maybe that’s what you see, but that’s not what the city of Eugene sees. Instead of prime farmland and green open space, Eugene envisions a 924-acre industrial park. 

The city claims it needs to pave over this prime farmland in order to create “large” industrial sites for job creation. It also throws parks and schools into the mix, just in case using the magic word “jobs” is not sufficient to bring people on board. This is a classic example of how economic development can, and often does, overpower land use planning to totally change the face and future of a community. 

Why does Eugene need additional “large” industrial sites? Well, we don’t. The claim is that these larger sites are needed to recruit large employers that allegedly pay higher than average wages, and, without these additional sites, Eugene would be create fewer high wage jobs. Hogwash.

It is unlikely this urban growth boundary (UGB) expansion will actually create any new jobs at all. Oh, there will be jobs there, jobs that would otherwise be somewhere else in Eugene or Springfield. A big part of our problem is that we plan for job creation as if Eugene and Springfield each existed by itself, isolated from the other. They do not. They are both part of one contiguous urban area, one community, and we would be better off to do our economic development planning that way. 

The city “needs” large industrial sites because the state of Oregon says we do. Why? Because those are the kinds of companies the state of Oregon recruits, mostly because, based on economy of scale, Business Oregon cannot afford the staff resources to go after smaller companies. And the culture of Business Oregon favors doing the “big deal,” as they kowtow to the big site-selection consulting firms.

We need to pay attention to what we recruit for large sites, as well as the cost to do it. Business Oregon does not give a hoot about local communities and would put anyone and anything anywhere. And since the state relies on income taxes for revenue, and gets nothing out of property taxes, Business Oregon relentlessly pressures communities for bigger and bigger property tax giveaways for these large companies. 

Prineville is a classic example. The Facebook data center there creates a few high-wage jobs that will likely go to people from somewhere else who will probably not even live in Prineville. They use up virtually all of the community’s business support infrastructure like water and power, and they won’t pay a nickle of property taxes for fifteen years. Does anyone think Facebook is still going to be there in fifteen years? 

Small cities and local economic development agencies do not actually recruit businesses to locate here. That’s a common myth, promoted by the agencies themselves. They mostly just wait while the state does the recruiting. However, local business recruitment does exist. It is being done by organizations like Tracktown USA, the Bach Festival, Travel Lane County and the McKenzie River Guides Association. It is being done by local industry associations like the Silicon Shire and the Oregon Brewers Guild, and business incubators like RAIN and Sprout.

These organizations and others put our communities in the national and international spotlight and bring visitors and jobs. They get the attention of small businesses — that’s the first, and most difficult step in recruitment. Once here, the visitors find themselves in a community that is not just like everywhere else. Some will be motivated to explore the opportunity to move or expand their businesses here and create jobs, without demanding or expecting big tax breaks, and they likely will not need big sites. Based on our experience with the recessions of the 1980’s and 2008, it would seem prudent to have a diversified economy based on smaller businesses, rather than relying on a few large employers. 

The people that come here to listen to world-class music at the Bach Festival, or watch the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, or fly fish the McKenzie River, find themselves in a place not like where they came from. They are in a place with its own distinct personality. Many of them are from places that look like everywhere else. From cities that have spread out into each other without end, losing their identity in the process. 

I believe the UGB, something totally unique to Oregon, helps keep us unique, keeps us from not looking or feeling like everywhere else. 

And I believe our uniqueness is our biggest economic development recruitment asset. Let’s not squander that asset to create another industrial park that looks just like every other industrial park in the country. It’s the UGB that helps to make us different, and every time we expand it, we edge just a little closer to being just another place that looks like every other place, Any-town, USA.

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