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Support grows for new gorge program

A program formed last year to boost the area economy — while protecting the environment as an economic recruiting tool — is collecting letters of support in an effort to seek funding.

The latest entity to offer its backing is the Columbia River Gorge Commission, which met April 9 in The Dalles.

The efforts of the Regional Center of Innovation, as the program is called, dovetail closely with the dual purposes of the gorge commission, which are to protect gorge resources while also promoting the economy.

There was a time when the gorge commission was not seen as being friendly to or even interested in economic matters. Many, no matter where they stood on the issue, believed it was an “either-or” choice of protecting the environment or promoting the economy.

The commission’s new executive director, Darren Nichols, however, is among those who increasingly view the issue of environment vs. economy as a false dichotomy.

He believes one isn’t possible without the other. He has cited Insitu as a company that located here specifically for recreational resources.

Dan Spatz, development director for Columbia Gorge Community College, spoke to the commission about the program, which aims to strengthen and diversify the local economy and, specifically, create well-paying jobs in the clean technology sector.

Once the program has gathered enough letters — it already has letters of support from universities and a local tech business, and legislative staffers have also indicated a willingness to endorse the effort — it will seek either federal or foundation funding.

The idea for the program sprang from a series of regional forums throughout the gorge last year, aimed at discovering roadblocks to economic development in the gorge.

Top issues are lack of housing, poor infrastructure, and a need for a better-trained workforce.

The focal point right now is lack of housing, which is particularly acute in Hood River and White Salmon.

The group came up with the term “attainable housing” to describe the housing shortage, since “affordable” or “workforce” housing “carry a connotation to them,” Spatz said.

“This affects all income sectors,” he said. “If you’re a business, you’re trying to recruit professionals as well as line workers. You’re trying to recruit an entire workforce,” all of whom need housing, he said.

The Mid-Columbia Housing Agency is working on a pilot program for attainable housing, he said.

The college and others are working to address needs for education and training.

“There is a lack of a skilled work force in the Columbia River Gorge,” said Spatz.

Even basic skill levels are inadequate, he said.

There are employment opportunities, he said, but employers struggle to find candidates not only with adequate skills, but an understanding of what it takes to be a good employee.

Employees need, for example, to dress appropriately, be dependable, and show up on time.

“That is part of the education and training challenge,” he said.

One pilot project the college and local school districts are working on is aimed at boosting eighth grade math scores by giving kids “a reason to learn math early on,” Spatz said.

He said a typical student question is, “‘Why do I have to learn math? What good is it going to do me?’ Well, it’s going to do a lot of good. There are jobs out there, we need to show what those jobs are,” he said.

The pilot project will include job shadowing and internships.

To improve the educational level of the workforce, colleges are working with industry to learn what they need in an employee, and then “building that into the curriculum early,” Spatz said.

Tailoring curriculum to industry needs is a goal of Oregon’s education system, Spatz said.

The governor’s office has asked the college and its partners to launch the pilot program this September.

A presentation to seek funding for the project will be made in May to the Oregon Education Investment Board, he said.

As for infrastructure, specific issues include problems such as at-grade railroad crossings, which affect access to industrial areas.

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