Light industry faces challenges

Dean Cropper gets brochures from cities across the nation that are trying to lure his orthopedic brace manufacturing business away from its home in Ashland.

"They are wanting my company to move," he said.

The cities dangle offers of tax breaks, payments to cover moving costs and other incentives as they work to attract Cropper Medical.

Cropper, the founder and chief executive officer of the company, moved to Ashland in 1986. He had long been involved in the medical products industry when he patented Bioskin material and began manufacturing back, knee and ankle braces in the mid-1990s. A building on Hersey Street serves as his primary manufacturing and distribution center, although he also has a facility in Louisville, Kentucky.

As manufacturers continue to flee America for lower-cost countries, cities in the United States are vying to keep or attract them, especially light manufacturers that emit little pollution.

Ashland is known as a tourism town, but it does have a number of light manufacturers. Keeping those businesses and attracting new manufacturers could emerge as an important goal as the city of Ashland works with residents to craft an economic development strategy in 2010.

Mayor John Stromberg appointed Cropper to a new Economic Development Committee that will help develop the strategy. Cropper joins other representatives from the business, education, research, nonprofit and government sectors on the committee.

Meanwhile, the Ashland Planning Commission and Ashland City Council are in the midst of creating a redevelopment plan for the former Croman Mill site east of Tolman Creek Road. Ashland's largest block of undeveloped land has been identified as a key area to site light manufacturers.

But Ashland faces hurdles, such as high-priced land and an ambivalent attitude about development, if it wants to compete for light manufacturers.

Cropper said his brace-making company is considered a high-priced manufacturer mainly because it's based in America, rather than in countries like Mexico and China.

"We are at a disadvantage. We have foregone some of the profits," he said.

"We are a manufacturer here and continue to be, but the challenge in our industry is principally cost."

Cropper said he faces higher costs but gets a good, high quality workforce, although people who assemble the braces generally cannot afford to live in Ashland because of high housing costs.

Cropper Medical also employs engineers as well as sales, accounting and human resources staff. The company provides health insurance, he said.

While the business faces challenges because of its location in America, it faces additional challenges from being in Ashland, he said.

Two years ago, Cropper wanted to expand.

"We almost moved. We needed a larger facility and Ashland is not an appealing place to build," he said.

After looking in Talent and Phoenix, Cropper bought the building he occupies in Ashland after vacancies opened in the building, allowing him to take over those spaces.

Costs are high in Ashland to buy land and to get through the planning process, and utility connection costs are expensive, Cropper said.

"The city needs to encourage good, clean businesses here. That brings jobs and growth — not sprawl," he said.

Upsides to having a business in Ashland include close access to the airport in Medford that connects business travelers to larger cities and a high quality of life in town, Cropper said.

Guy Tauer, regional economist for the Oregon Department of Employment, said most of Jackson County's manufacturing is concentrated in White City, where land zoned for industrial uses is plentiful.

But manufacturing can be important for any city.

"It's always good to have a diverse economy. In general, you don't want all your eggs in one basket. Ashland is pretty reliant on tourism. Manufacturing has decreased in Ashland," Tauer said, referring mainly to the drop in wood products manufacturers in Ashland.

The manufacturing industry typically pays higher wages, offers longer work weeks and provides better benefits than the retail and service sectors that dominate Ashland's economy, he said.

Craig Bramscher, chairman and chief executive officer of Enertia electric motorcycle manufacturer BRAMMO Inc. in Ashland, said he would like to see more light industry — especially green businesses — cluster in town.

If a new hire doesn't work out at BRAMMO, he or she will probably have to move away to find a new job because there are relatively few businesses like BRAMMO here, Bramscher said.

He said no one at BRAMMO makes less than $10 an hour. Mechanics and assemblers can make $20 an hour, while engineers make $50,000 to $125,000. Of BRAMMO's 40 employees, 25 are engineers, he said.

Bramscher said the hardest part of doing business in Ashland is the development side of the equation. He said he's facing a challenge in trying to get a road put through for his company.

The Oregon Economic and Community Development Department has provided a $500,000 loan and $400,000 grant to extend Jefferson Street in a move to promote BRAMMO's growth.

Bramscher was tasked with getting the plans and permits for the street extension, but still hadn't done so in November. The Ashland City Council voted that month to spend $28,425 for the city government to hire an engineering firm to get that planning work done and speed up the project.

Bramscher said he was pleased to learn of the council's decision after being in China for several weeks. He said city staff members have been supportive, but it's hard for a business person to have time to work on development issues.

"The city has been waiting for me to do things. They should help businesses get infrastructure. In a lot of cities, if you're bringing in jobs, they'll bend over backwards," he said.

He said businesses, especially start-ups, have little time to take raw land and develop it. When it comes to attracting light industry to the Croman Mill site in the future, Bramscher said it would be beneficial for the city to have infrastructure in place and pre-approved projects at the site.

In November, the City Council authorized city staff to apply for up to $1 million in state grant funding to help pay for a primary street through the Croman Mill site. A street there would make it easier for medical software maker Plexis Healthcare Systems to expand from its A Street location in Ashland to the Croman site.

Bramscher has advocated for an economic development zone in Ashland where taxes would be waived for a period of time to encourage businesses to build. Some fear that businesses would use the zone during the tax-exempt period, and then exit Ashland. But even if some did, they would leave behind buildings that could be used by the next business, which would pay taxes, Bramscher said.

He said he's been told that city officials can't consider creation of an economic development zone until an economic development strategy has been adopted.

Bramscher said he hopes the economic development strategy will help Ashland find ways to be more attractive to business, including light industry that uses green technology.

"If you're not putting out a welcome mat, you're putting out a 'you're lucky to be here' mat," he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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