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America's Sour Economy Hits Home

There's good and bad news for local communities

POLK COUNTY -- Much of Polk County knew the news before it became official.

Oregon is in a recession.

While the jobless rate jumped to 5.4 percent nationally, 7.4 percent of Oregonians are out of work, according to an Associated Press report.

While some will escape unscathed, Polk County is showing some signs of the hard times.

Businesses have closed in the past months. Others have been forced to lay off employees.

City governments have struggled with less money from the State.

There is uncertainty even where there is prosperity.

INDEPENDENCE

: BEATING THE ODDS

The economy is good in Independence. Almost to the point of being bizarre.

Medallion Cabinetry just opened its doors on Hoffman Road. The 150,000-square foot factory could bring up to 400 jobs to Independence.

What's more, houses are being built throughout the community, City Manager Greg Ellis said.

The state budget shortfall could hurt the city. A little. Independence gets about $100,000 from cigarette and alcohol taxes and other state revenues.

"I wouldn't like to see that money go away," Ellis said.

All the same, it wouldn't cripple the city.

The city has enough money socked away in its contingency fund to handle whatever happens -- or doesn't happen -- at the state level.

A sour economy in other parts of the county definitely affect Independence, Ellis said. A number of laid-off Tyco workers live in Independence.

People who work in Salem and other communities have also become part of the state and national statistics. However, as far as hitting Independence directly, Ellis said the town itself has been spared.

"I just don't see an impact right now," he said.

"If the economy picks back up, we might even be too busy. Of course, there's really no such thing as too busy."

MONMOUTH

: A SHOESTRING AND A SMILE

The economy of Monmouth can be summed up in three words.

Western Oregon University.

The university is the town's largest employer and industry. When the university gets the sniffles, the rest of Monmouth catches a cold.

"The state budget is a big concern for us with Western being our biggest employer," City Manager Jeff Hecksel said.

It doesn't help that the university faculty have called a strike unless the gridlock over salaries can be broken by winter term.

A strike could cause students to transfer to other campuses. Western simply doesn't have the enrollment to spare.

Monmouth will also likely lose the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to Salem. The police academy translates into 135 local jobs.

Like most cities, Monmouth gets state money through tobacco and alcohol taxes as well as state revenue sharing. That money is important, Hecksel said.

But it won't have nearly as much effect as what the Higher Education budget could do to the university.

Western has been preparing for reductions of anywhere from 2 to 10 percent, said Darin Silbernagel, vice president for business and finance.

If the higher figure turns out to be the correct one, impact to the university will be "significant," Silbernagel said. That means eliminating programs, cutting administrative costs and leaving jobs unfilled.

And "having less programs hurts enrollment," Silbernagel said.

Beyond the Western issue, Hecksel said Monmouth is experiencing the same economic woes as the rest of the country.

"The experience we're seeing is consistent with what other people are experiencing," he said.

Still, times are particularly tough in Monmouth.

Population has remained stagnant while the community has lost businesses such as the Market Place supermarket.

Monmouth Mayor Paul Evans is concerned.

Quality of life in a small town costs money and the price is going up. Without growth and development to pick up the tab, he said, the town is in trouble.

"For years, we have maintained our city services through disciplined financing and reliance upon noncommercial residential taxes," Evans said in his State-of-the-City Address last January.

"We have managed to keep things together on a shoestring and smile."

To keep taxes reasonable, Monmouth needs new business. "In fact, we needed it yesterday," said Evans, currently on active duty with the Air Force Reserve in New Mexico.

"Downtown is in crisis," he said. Businesses have closed and have not been replaced.

"Monmouth has experienced a dramatic and undeniable downward shift in development," Evans said. "We have stagnant growth in the one sector of our economy that has been the mainstay for the past half decade."

What Monmouth needs, Evans said, is the development of specific kinds of downtown businesses such as restaurants, entertainment facilities and retail stores.

"While Monmouth is far from terminal, urgent care is needed."

DALLAS

: THE GLASS IS 92 PERCENT FULL

Recessions have hit Dallas as well. Recent layoffs from Tyco and Valley Community Hospital have upped the jobless rate.

Normally, when workers lose jobs in Dallas, they can turn to other communities, said City Manager Roger Jordan.

"Dallas is the hub of a region," Jordan said. "As people lose jobs in Dallas, they have the opportunity to go elsewhere.

"But the whole Salem metro region has had similar reductions."

Though 8 percent unemployment is the highest Dallas has had for years, 92 percent of the people still have jobs, Jordan pointed out.

City government is also feeling the downturn. The "rainy day fund" is being used to fund city services.

As workers lose income sources, retail stores and restaurants start to feel the pinch.

"People are tight on the money," said Janny Chin, owner of Hong Kong Restaurant on Main St.

"And if they have no money, they don't eat out."

After a slow autumn, sales at Dallas Antique Mall have been on par with what they were last December, co-owner Ginnie McDaniel said.

But she sees that as a temporary surge. "Right after Christmas, people are going to spend some money.

"But then it's going to tighten back up again."

Convincing people to open their pocketbooks after September 11 has been a challenge.

"Business has gone down the hill since September," Chin said. But she had seen business slow even earlier.

"Number one is the economy," Chin said. "Number two is Sept. 11."

McDaniel had seen a sales lull in early September. Then, after the suicide attacks, "business just dropped to nothing."

Though she hopes things turn around, McDaniel isn't placing any bets. "Retail right now is just like a yo-yo -- it's absolutely impossible to outguess it."

The current slump comes as Dallas moves ahead on an ambitious commercial revitalization project involving the City, the Economic Development Commission and the Chamber of Commerce.

The project seeks to make Dallas an attractive place to shop and work by bringing in new businesses and sprucing up old ones.

"We're hoping to create an atmosphere to help commercial and industrial [businesses] succeed," Jordan said.

"We need to step forward even more at this time than in the past."

Laid off workers may find they need direct help. Anticipating this need, the Polk Job and Career Center has devoted additional staff to get people back on their feet.

When Willamette Industries closed its plywood plant in June 2000, the career center helped the workers -- with impressive results. In less than a year, more than 80 percent found work or went back to school.

Getting laid off is like a grieving process, said Michaele Pelzer of the center. "It doesn't matter why you lost it -- if you lose your job, you go through it."

Working at the center means doing a lot of listening and allowing people to vent, Pelzer said.

Then they get down to business -- contacting employers, assisting with r‚sum‚s, and helping people tap into medical, transportation and child-care services.

As part of larger networks, the Polk Job and Career Center lets job seekers use resources from the Marion, Polk and Yamhill county region and beyond. The center has offices at 580 Main Street in Dallas and 1605 Monmouth Street in Independence.

Pelzer remains optimistic while acknowledging the difficult times. "This is one of the hardest things I've seen Dallas hit by," she said, "and I've been here 25 years.

"But it's a strong community -- it pulls together more than any other I've seen."

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