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The Dallas Youth Garden, which began in 2013, has been the recipient of money from Polk County’s share of video lottery revenue. The student-run garden helps build job skills during a growing season internship.

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DALLAS — After Bob and Kerrie Tucker established Mak Metals in 2004 and launched Mak Grills in 2010, they were looking to expand their facility and workforce, located in Dallas, by 2015.

When they were in discussions with city and county officials about meeting all the requirements for the expansion, it was brought up the county could help offset Mak’s costs.

“Both Dallas and Polk county are extremely willing to do businesses any way they can in my experience,” Bob Tucker said. “You just have to have a conversation to see what is available and doable.”

The Tuckers got in touch with Polk County Commissioners, invited them out to see what Mak Metals/Grills were doing and asked if there was anything they could do.

It turns out, the county does have a fund it has set aside for just such economic development.

County Commissioners board chair Craig Pope explained the state receives funds from video lottery sales that it is obligated to share with counties, by statute, at 2.5% percent each. Unfortunately, he said counties have not received their 2.5 % since the law passed.

“The Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) and individual commissioners fighting with the issue, are saying just true us up. Get us back to where law says supposed to be,” Pope said. “We’re way behind. The state is not likely to ever true us up.”

Pope explained the problem for Polk County with the state’s formula based on video sales is the Spirit Mountain Casino in the county which attracts more use.

“We have less terminals operating in the county. We don’t get any money from the casino. So, our numbers tend to be smaller than other counties that don’t have a casino,” Pope said.

For Polk County, the video sales dollars amount to roughly $300,000 a year. Last year, the fund took a hit from the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the numbers down substantially. Pope said according to the Lottery Commission, there won’t be any true up from that.

Pope said Polk County uses some of the money for community economic development and other investments in organizations “that are truly part of our economic development, like Strategic Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR). We spend about $30,000 a year, our share of SEDCOR dues, to help supplement Alex Paraskevas to represent Polk County.”

That leaves about $80,000 a year into a pot they created for economic development distribution. Pope said when he first came on board the county commissioners, that pot did not exist. That money was essentially what he fondly terms as “thrown over the fence” to three cities, with no accountability, no reports or deliverables. Essentially, it was being used by city managers for whatever city managers deemed appropriate, he said.

“I said that needs to stop. It’s the people’s money. Even though it’s not taxes, it is still the county’s share of video lottery money. So, let’s make it accountable, put it in a pot and use it in a way that actually makes sense, that we can track something tangible, see outcomes, set boundaries in what we’re going to invest in,” Pope said.

The decision of where the money goes is at the discretion of the three commissioners. Pope said they don’t widely advertise the availability of the funds, as it’s not a lot to spread across the entire county. And they also try not to set precedents they can’t meet.

For example, Chateau Bianca was looking to expand its power infrastructure for wine production.

“We need to be cautious and asking thoughtful questions, to set some criteria and not just throw $30,000 at a winery so they can build a tasting room,” Pope said. “Because every winery will want that, which we can’t do. So, we make sure they’re actually improving economic development in the county with that investment. I think that is what our citizens would want us to do with that money.”

In many cases, as with Chateau Bianca, the commissioners can help steer the applicant toward a bigger pot of money for their needs. Pope, as a business owner with experience with power distribution and three-phase contracts, knows that when working with PGE or any power company, they are in charge of the project and estimates can easily go much higher.

“And that ends up on the business owner to fulfill the agreement,” he said. “If I can get some Business Oregon investments, SEDCOR, Regional Solutions and some other folks involved, we should be doing that. I don’t know what Andreas (Wetzel’s) experience was with those organizations, but it didn’t sound like he had one. If I can find him better pathway that gets him more support and better support, we’re likely to say no, we’re not going to fund this one. That’s entirely possible. If with this application we found him some other alternatives that are better, then that is a good thing.”

A final decision on Chateau Bianca’s request is pending.

The commissioners prefer the funds go toward building jobs and especially youth jobs, if possible. Pope said it’s been a driving factor for all three of the commissioners, wanting to see youth get trade skills in the pipeline for the community. For example, as Chair of the Dallas Youth Garden, Pope is proud the organization has received $5,000 a year for several years from the video poker funds. The garden brings in nine Dallas High School students every season, assigns them a list of things they need to accomplish, things they need to plan and write reports.

“They need to get out of bed, show up and get some homework,” Pope said of the program. “They end up having a real job with outcomes and they get paid, a stipend, which they can put on a resume. It’s trackable. It can be verified.”

The Dallas School District has also received money from the economic development pot for employment opportunities like job shadowing and intern programs, Pope said.

“We’ll continue to do that. There’s just no (other) money for it. If we can help support our school districts while they’re looking for ways to get our youth into businesses and get them some opportunity to experience what careers might look like, things that might be of interest to them, that’s a good investment from our point of view,” he said.

Pope added they try not to be investors in a building project.

One no vote went to the Monmouth-Independence Chamber of Commerce last month. Sarah Ramirez, board member for the Monmouth-Independence Chamber of Commerce and visitor center, had asked the commissioners for $5,000 to support the visitors center through June 30 and another $5,000 for the 2021-22 fiscal year. She explained the funding would allow MICC and visitors center to expand outreach of tourism programs throughout Polk County.

“Our goal is to really promote everything that Polk County is,” Ramirez said. “As the pandemic starts dying out, with the vaccine on board, still will take time. That’s why we’re trying to open the doors and get people thinking about where they’re going to travel when they can.”

Pope, speaking for the other commissioners who were in agreement at the time, told Ramirez this probably wasn’t a “timely ask.”

“We are having a conversation in the Polk County Tourism Alliance about a bigger vision. In no point in the conversation so far that I’ve been a part of has it been suggested that Monmouth Visitor Center, as you’re describing it, would be the lead with what we’re trying to envision as a full, county wide process,” Pope told Ramirez. “Personally, I think this is premature. I think we need to let the Tourism Alliance do what it’s wanting to do, which is including West Salem. … I want to make certain, that we give Tourism Alliance, all the partners there, to have the conversation and figure out what fits best.”

However, some business-building requests do receive exceptions, such as Anytime Fitness, which needed help finishing their facility, but were able to prove the end result would be hiring more people from the community. 

“Mak Metals, with their significant expansion, was an easy pitch for us they were going to significantly increase their workforce with their expansion when they opened, almost doubling in size their facility,” Pope said.

Tucker said Mak Metals received $30,000 from the economic development funds which went to offset almost all of the city’s System Development Charges.

“When you build an expansion of over a million dollars, there are a lot of hefty fees from the city,” Tucker said. “This did not pay all of them, but it sure helped a lot.”

As a result, Mak Metals was able to expand their facility from 22,000 square feet to 52,500 and expand their workforce at its peak from the 20s in 2018 to nearly 50.

Pope outlined that businesses have to be established, at least two years, with a track record, so that the county will not be investing in a startup. And even then, not every business or nonprofit makes it through the application process.

“Every single application is a judgment call,” Pope added.

It was a call for which Tucker was very grateful.

“Truthfully, we were not very optimistic,” he admitted about the applying for the county’s funds. “It’s really nice thing for county to help us out. The city also helped out in many ways, helping us capitalize during growth spurt in an enterprise zone.”

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