Although malheur is French for misfortune, Malheur County is anything but misfortunate. Malheur County Economic Development has a plan to succeed and is working hard to bring it to fruition for this population of over 30,000. Due to the association’s efforts, the last three years has seen impressive growth.
The county was created in 1887 and named after the Malheur River. This area was initially settled by trappers, miners, and cattlemen in the mid-1800s. Gold was discovered in 1863, sparking further interest in what has become known as the Treasure Valley for its vast resources.
The strength of Malheur County Economic Development is in these resources and the county’s people including its Economic Development Director Greg Smith.
Greg has been doing economic development for twenty-five years and has “worked on projects that ran into hundreds of millions of dollars down to mom and pop businesses. We can take on any project and solve problems. I also serve in the Oregon Legislature and became a senior ranking member in the Oregon House of Representatives. This allows me to know who key players are at the state level.” The county retained his services about three years ago, and those years have seen the beginning of a solid foundation for future success.
Greg and Economic Coordinator Phil Scheuers work with the county’s pro-business and pro-growth board of commissioners. The board is remarkable at listening to businesses and trying to solve complications. “There is not a problem too large that we cannot solve. It’s a simple organization, but very streamlined and works well. We respond to over twenty business leads a year.”
This is a primarily agricultural community that, despite a yearly average of only ten inches of precipitation, has more acres devoted to the cultivation of onions, alfalfa hay and sugar beets than anywhere else in the state. Crops in this dry interior are dependent on irrigation, and farms here employ up to date field irrigation techniques. Another top farm activity is the production of the beef cattle that graze on the vast stretches of rangeland.
Other crops are wheat, sweet and field corn, and potatoes, among others, but onion production is the leading row crop, generating millions of dollars a year.
Value-added food processing is a targeted industry. The county is already home to the Kraft Heinz Company in Ontario that processes potatoes for the Ore-Ida brand and is the county’s largest employer.
Malheur Economic Development is currently talking to a Canadian mushroom company that is planning expansion and interested in locating to the Vale area. The company grows mushrooms in straw, a significant quantity of which it already imports from Malheur County, so the move would certainly save on shipping costs. The composted, used mushrooms straw is bagged and sold for garden use. It is looking at a five-acre site for the mushroom cultivation and packing and a second, thirty-acre site, for composting. The two combined would employ an estimated 160 people.
Many produce manufacturers ship goods out of the county. “We have more than twenty-five shippers and packers here. This is significant because if your commodity is moving east to west, Malheur is the place to be.”
Because of this, agricultural and economic leaders have, for the past year, been aggressively working to have an intermodal transportation hub – called a reload facility – established in the county. Farmers currently truck potatoes, onions, hops, cattle, hay and other products to Washington state to be loaded on rail cars that then pass back through Malheur County on their journey eastward. The proposed loading and unloading facility would be adjacent to the Union Pacific railroad mainline and would lower transit times and freight rates. Numerous producers believe the hub will aid their competitiveness in the market.
Members of the Oregon State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation & Modernization, who are responsible for developing a significant statewide transportation infrastructure package, visited the area in June to examine the viability of a reload facility. Results look promising, but the project’s initial funding must be secured from the state transportation budget. In February, the state legislature will vote on the proposed statewide transportation investment bill, which is anticipated to be upwards of $1 billion.
“Value-added agriculture is our number one priority, solar development is just booming here, and advanced manufacturing is also a high priority, but reloading our customers’ products and helping them move product in a safe, efficient and effective manner is really our newest and highest priority.”
The gold that lured those early prospectors to Malheur County is still here. It also has silver and uranium in amounts that may become economically feasible. The largest mining industry currently is in the excavation of diatomaceous earth which is made of the fossilized remains of a type of hard-shelled algae called diatoms. EP Minerals employs about 124 people here to mine diatomaceous earth that is then shipped around the world. This versatile rock is used as a mechanical insect killer, an abrasive, a filtration aid, thermal insulator and many more uses.
Malheur County Economic Development works hard to make life easier for residents and existing businesses, and the Juntura Cutoff Road project is a prime example. The seven-mile road gives access to state and federal lands. These are used for recreational opportunities and rangeland, and the road is crucial for firefighter access during fire season. The road also serves EP Minerals.
The cost of EP Minerals’ mining operations had been raised significantly by the appalling state of the road. In less than a year, a collaboration between Malheur County Economic Development, the mining company, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Business Oregon, and the state government’s Regional Solutions acquired the funding for the $6.9 million project to repair and extend the road.
“We are ready to help businesses who want to grow and have the track record to back our claim.”
The area already has phenomenal access to transportation. The town of Ontario – the largest city in Malheur County – is near Interstate 84 and U.S. highways 20/26 and 201 with rail access via the Oregon Eastern shortline and Union Pacific mainline.
The county’s location is attractive to more than just business. Tourists now come to explore the historic Oregon Trail that passed through here, bringing the earliest settlers to this Eastern Oregon rangeland. It is a great place to live for people who want to be in a rural environment yet maintain access to the amenities of larger centers as it is less than an hour from Boise.
Tourists and residents are enticed by camping, hunting, and fishing, and Greg says the area’s outdoor pursuits are unsurpassed. People travel from all over the world for pheasant, deer, and elk hunting. Some of the best fly-fishing in the country is right here in Malheur County where the Owyhee River is famed for its brown and rainbow trout.
“We have a population of 30,000, but a workforce of 65,000 in what we call the Treasure Valley of Oregon and Idaho.”
Making sure that this population has the educational and training opportunities needed has been the subject of a workforce project by business, education and government leaders who believe that the future of the county rests on this. Part of the Malheur County: Poverty to Prosperity movement is focused on the demand for more career technical education (CTE) training to meet student needs for students who do not plan to attend college. Students can be job-ready, helping both them and industries that might want to come to the area.
Malheur offers a specialty property tax exemption for those companies in renewable energies such as solar, wind, or biofuel. “For anyone that is interested in these incentives, all they have to do is give us a call. We will sit down and work it out. We will travel to them and lay it all out.”
One such project is a Cypress Creek Renewables’ solar farm project which consists of six solar farms in the county and should be operational at the start of 2017.
“This is an exciting new opportunity for Malheur County. We are becoming an energy hub of the Pacific Northwest, with over six solar projects currently underway, and the facilities are located next to hydroelectric systems on the Snake River. We have wind energy developments, solar developments and hydro systems. For business that wants to move here, there is not an energy need that we cannot meet.”
The county’s hydroelectric power projects on the Malheur River were the first such energy sites to be constructed on a river formerly known for its rapids. “The hydro system has taken out the rapids to make it navigable.”
Malheur County has both the space and the power to meet the requirements of manufacturing concerns. “We are working with several Fortune 500 manufacturers right now, who need more than two hundred acres each. We can accommodate that need. The available land is zoned industrial for outright use in large quantities, with affordable, available power.”
In Malheur County, there are over 1,400 acres that have been zoned industrial, and much of this has been given the Regionally Significant Industrial Areas designation by the State of Oregon due to their accessibility to regional markets. These areas, with level land, transportation access and other competitive advantages, are prioritized when state funding agencies are deciding where to invest in infrastructure.
“Part of the reason Malheur is receiving this is because we are equidistant to cities around the Northwest. The legislature recognizes that Malheur County is strategically located and ready to grow, so all of the right incentives were put into place.” Any company that chooses to locate in Malheur County will also be eligible for income and property tax abatements.
The last three years have seen steady progress, and that should continue. “What I envision in the next twenty-five years, is that Malheur County will continue to retain its rural way of life. It will be a great place for families. Good jobs will be available, and companies will know they are welcome.”