More at play than just theater
By Gary G. Anderson
Believing that the economy of Ashland is too dependent on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), many recent candidates for City Council have argued that we need to diversify our economy away from tourism. However, casual observation indicates our local economy has actually been relatively stable over the past two years, in spite of the shuttered theaters. Is economic diversification a critical need or not?
Information from an economic development strategy study conducted for Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Incorporated (SOREDI) in the fall of 2019, and data from the 2020 U.S. Census, as well as observation and interviews, suggests that other industries may, in fact, already be sharing in support of our economy.
One of the key findings of the SOREDI study (prior to the pandemic) was that 10 percent of all employees in Jackson County work remotely, more than twice the national average. Drawing on technical skills and resources, and attracted here by the quality of life and amenities, this category can be expected to continue to grow even faster in the future given strategic support and assistance.
The recent U.S. Census identifies a second unusual feature of our city. Nearly one-quarter of the population of our zip code is over 65 years old, compared with only 18 percent of Oregon’s population and 16 percent of the population in the United States.
Moving here on retirement, attracted by the quality of life of our city and region, this group benefits our economy in two ways. They create jobs for other people who can provide senior services and elder care, and they bring money to the city in the same way that seasonal tourists do, but live here year-round.
Even our tourist attractions are more diverse and complicated than policy makers often presume. Our performing arts establishments, much broader than just OSF, not only attract tourist dollars, but also add to the quality of life for local residents. In addition, our hotels and restaurants benefit from tourists drawn to the recreational opportunities of the Rogue Valley and the culinary attractions that derive from the region’s vineyards, wineries and other specialty agriculture.
Likewise, Ashland has a large number of small, technically based manufacturing companies that export both technology and high-tech products. These businesses and the skilled workers they employ don’t seem to have been affected in the least by the COVID-19 crisis.
Taken together, these employment clusters — high-tech home-based employment, senior living and elder care, performing arts tourism, outdoor and culinary tourism, and high-tech product development — constitute a very diverse and balanced economy, with each sector effectively supported by the resources of our region.
By observation alone, we can draw some conclusions about each of these clusters. For example, our local economy certainly suffered from the loss of OSF performances during the past two years. However, retail business losses seem to have been concentrated in those stores that had been designed to take advantage of tourist traffic in the downtown area. Most restaurants had long since developed year-round resilience, relying on the seasonal availability of Southern Oregon University students to supplement their regular workforce during the six months of the OSF season.
On the other hand, Ashland appears to be benefiting from national trends of migration away from the crowded city centers, with both high-tech home workers and retirees being attracted to Ashland and the Rogue Valley during the COVID-19 crisis.
Of course, some aspects of our industry clusters were hit hard were hit hard by the Almeda Fire, exacerbating an already serious housing shortage. Senior care and hospitality services which rely heavily on low-wage workers suffered from loss of workers who had to move out of the area.
On the other hand, the attention that has been focused on economic issues over the past two years has identified a number of opportunities for improvement. Opportunities exist for greater collaboration both across the region and within specific industry clusters to strengthen our economy. Housing is getting significantly more attention, both within the city and in cooperation with other regions. OSF is exploring a longer season and greater use of enclosed performing spaces to guard against problems of seasonality and smoke issues.
There is no question that the economic base of our city and region will continue to be a source of high-priority issues in coming months. Through interviews and research Ashland.news will be working to get a more detailed understanding of the economy and ramifications of city and regional policies as part of our focus on local news. Look for articles on this topic in the newsletter and continuing exploration of the issues on the website.
Email Ashland resident, economic consultant and Ashland.news board member and columnist Gary G. Anderson at email@example.com.