The 2023 Eastern Oregon Economic Summit brought together about 280 business leaders, farmers, manufacturers, candidates, legislators, and state and local elected officials in Union County on August 3-4 to learn about the opportunities and challenges facing the expansive and diverse region.
The summit is hosted annually by the Eastern Oregon Women’s Coalition, and this year was based at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. The event focuses on what makes Eastern Oregon’s economy and culture unique and how state and local leaders can work together to reach the area’s potential.
Pac/West Lobby Group has been a planning partner and sponsor since the inaugural event in 2019 and has been excited to see the event expand its reach and scope each year.
Tours and Breakouts
The regional tours on Thursday and breakout sessions on Friday gave a boots-on-the-ground view of work being done to find local solutions to challenges facing jobs, housing, water, and forestry.
The Economic Development/Workforce Tour showcased projects in the downtown core, including a new business incubator developed in an old fire station. Breakout sessions included opportunities for business recruitment incentives and lessons learned from women-owned small businesses.
The Housing Tour looked at various apartments, rentals, and housing developments, as well as the La Grande High School Construction Careers Program, which gives students hands-on experience with home construction. A breakout session explored how the statewide focus on housing will affect rural Oregon.
The Water Tour gave an overview of Union County’s place-based planning process, with projects like stream restoration on Catherine Creek, hydroelectricity in Cove, and flood mitigation to help agriculture. Breakout sessions discussed water quality and quantity as the Columbia Basin grapples with supply and demand.
The Forest Management Tour looked at the tools for managing timber production, with visits to local mills and plants. The main session included a rural wildfire preparedness report from DCBS Deputy Director Alex Cheng, and a breakout panel added a wide-ranging conversation about energy and climate resiliency preparation and the impact on energy and the environment.
A Word From Legislators
Following a video introduction by Gov. Tina Kotek, an economic update from State Treasurer Tobias Read, and reports and brief Q&As with Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, a bipartisan panel of 13 legislators took the stage to give a brief overview of their work in the 2023 session and answer questions from the audience.
They faced a range of questions, including the status of funding promised during the Legislative Session, why specific budget items in rural Oregon had fallen off the list, and why the state is struggling to meet mental health needs.
The question that received the most stage time was about Measure 110, approved by voters in 2020, which reduced criminal penalties for drug possession and aimed to increase access to recovery treatment. However, the measure has come under fire from all sides, as demonstrated by the bipartisan panel, which, across the board, called it “not particularly successful” to “a debacle” with unintended consequences.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (D-Portland) said the goal is to provide compassionate, effective care. Still, because the decriminalization piece came before the recovery infrastructure was set up, it hasn’t found the right balance yet. She also said she is optimistic about an upcoming fact-finding trip to Portugal which she believes has been more effective at providing care while reducing stigma.
The Eastern Oregon Economic Summit has been a valuable resource for regional leaders and a prime opportunity for two-way conversations with elected officials from the west side of the state. This year’s event also gave Eastern Oregon University, the Union County Chamber of Commerce, the City of La Grande’s Economic Development Division, and La Grande Main Street Downtown the opportunity to host many first-time guests. We’re grateful for these partnerships and looking forward to helping the event continue to evolve and grow.