Four-point plan calls for tourism diversification, downtown revitalization, small business support, living wage jobs
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Community leaders are partnering with city officials in Ashland to craft an economic revitalization plan after the recent completion of an economic diversification study commissioned by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.
During the Oct. 3 study session of the Ashland City Council, chamber representatives and members of ECONorthwest, the Portland firm that conducted the study, presented their findings and recommended next steps.
Sandra Slattery, the chamber’s executive director, said this study was the most thorough examination of Ashland’s economic strengths and potential in the last five decades, since the town had to adapt to a declining timber industry. She said recent crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and local wildfires have presented a new need to adapt, and the chamber wanted to look at the short-term and long-term impacts affecting local businesses.
“It’s really a time of change for Ashland,” said Slattery, “and the pandemic just revealed a lot of opportunities — some weaknesses — that were there before, but certainly gave us a chance to just look at it with fresh eyes for them to take a look at the reality of the situation.”
Slattery added, if Ashland does not embrace change at this juncture, “we’ll be declining as a community.”
Diving deep into Ashland
The study, funded with federal pandemic relief dollars, included an analysis of local economic data, demographics and real estate statistics and other hard figures. It also included opportunities for community input, such as surveys, focus groups and direct engagement of stakeholders.
Kryn Sausedo, senior project manager for ECONorthwest, said the chamber insisted on making sure the study took a deep dive into both the people and hard numbers representing Ashland’s economy.
“I think they were really impressed with how much they pushed our firm to hear more voices, dig deeper into the data and really develop a bold vision for Ashland, but also pragmatic and really clear,” he said.
Playing to Ashland’s strengths
According to the study, Ashland is situated well as a hub for performing arts and other cultural attractions, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and would benefit from an economic plan that plays to this strength. Other sectors of strong potential were the area’s natural beauty, which draws many eco-tourists, and the proximity of Southern Oregon University (SOU) and the individuals and programs it draws.
Other areas of potential included the many local farmers and craftspeople, which could benefit from a “Made in Ashland”-type brand encouraging support for local products. There are also opportunities at institutions like SOU to offer training programs in addition to their current curriculum to attract an even greater number of students.
“There’s a lot of optimism, I’ll be honest, about Ashland and where it could go,” Sausedo told the City Council.
He added the city has some roadblocks to bringing in more businesses and tourists, including the high housing costs, a perceived over-reliance on summer tourism and a certain amount of tension felt between local small businesses and city leaders. He said all three of these could be addressed through increased collaboration between city government and the private sector, with open lines of communication allowing people to identify and address problems directly.
A four-point plan
Sausedo said, based on the study, his firm identified a four-point approach the city could take toward strengthening its economy: Diversification of tourism, revitalization of downtown Ashland, improved support for small businesses, and an expansion of jobs that attract well-trained workers such as healthcare positions and remote work opportunities, in addition to elements supporting these roles such as affordable childcare and lower housing costs.
Slattery said the chamber will spend the next couple of months coordinating with groups like the City Council, SOU leadership and other stakeholders to craft a plan of action and fulfill these four goals. She said nothing is set in stone and, as groups are formed, feedback will be gathered and the path toward economic growth will adjust accordingly.
“It’s not a strategic plan that’s going to sit on a shelf,” she said. “They have been calling it ‘strategic doing,’ and it really is something we’ll have to make happen.”
City officials ready to move ahead
Councilor Gina DuQuenne said she loved the idea of diversifying tourism. She added she would like to see a focus on revitalizing parts of Ashland outside downtown, such as the university district, and that she’s eager to begin next steps.
“I look forward to rolling up my sleeves,” she said.
Councilor Stefani Seffinger said she wants to see the arts flourish, but also acknowledged that new programs may take time to catch on and will require follow-through, citing her own experience promoting Ashland Open Studio.
“You have to grow people into liking something or appreciating it,” she said, adding the city can bring in the type of infrastructure that allows easier access to new programs.
Councilor Tonya Graham pointed out the study identified significant concerns locally about the impacts of climate change, which have included hotter, drier summers and more intense wildfire conditions. Graham, who works professionally at an Ashland nonprofit promoting climate change adaptation, said continuing changes to the local climate will need to be taken into account in the city’s approach to economic diversification.
“We need to be thinking about, ‘What does that look like?’… keeping in mind that we’re planning for climate conditions that are what we are used to seeing here and making sure we integrate that,” said Graham.
Mayor Julie Akins said the study’s focus on affordable housing matches her own experience in speaking with potential businesses about relocating to Ashland.
“I’ve talked to maybe a dozen living-wage employers and asked what it would take to come here,” she said. “They all say the same thing. We need affordable housing for our workforce … Housing comes first and the jobs will follow. It’s been shown in market after market.”
Akins asked if the potential of psilocybin businesses had been considered in the study, saying Ashland already has supporting businesses for what could become a lucrative industry when clinical psilocybin becomes available in January. Slattery said the study did not examine psilocybin specifically, but she said healthcare services were a significant focus as both a potential source of jobs and a boon to livability in Ashland.
Email Ashland.news reporter Stephen Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.