Council Corner: Ashland’s economy of the future

When it comes to our local economy, Ashland has had a very interesting history, to say the least.

We have transformed from a Southern Oregon mill town to an area of the country that is renowned for our cultural offerings. Tourism has become the heart of our local economy. Outstanding restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts support the various tourist activities, which include presentations from the stages, screens and galleries that Ashland is so fortunate to have.

Our tourist economy has even grown to include visitors seeking outdoor recreation, be it skiing, hiking, mountain biking or fishing. In many ways, we are fortunate to have such an economy. All one has to do is look around to other Oregon cities our size and see the difference between a small town with a vibrant economy and one that has struggled to emerge from the change in the timber industry of the 1980s.

However, we Ashlanders must also come the realization that while our tourist-based economy provides us with certain advantages, it also brings with it the challenge of providing jobs that can support families and allow people to live in Ashland. The service-based jobs that support a tourist economy do not typically pay a wage that supports a family or even allows someone to live in Ashland. Many have felt the crush of housing costs in Ashland and the rising cost of consumer goods over the past decade.

While some upper-income individuals have enjoyed great success as a result of the U.S. economy, the fact is that we have seen little growth, particularly in middle-income jobs, in the past decade. Wages have not increased, but the cost of everything from gas to milk to rent has gone up.

To address this, Ashland must be willing to diversify and grow our economy, not in an effort to abandon the tourist base that has been so successful for us, but to encourage the expansion of current businesses and the establishment of new ones that focus on areas other than the service and tourist industry. We can look for opportunities in tech, manufacturing and retail business expansion in Ashland, but to do this we need to be willing to take a new look at our current city codes, which, while not intended to do so, discourage some businesses from locating in Ashland and others from expanding.

The expectation from the city must be to help prospective or current business owners with a “let me help you find a solution” attitude, rather than “if you can get through the obstacle course you can do it” stance. Diversifying our economy also makes us less vulnerable from the downturn of any one sector.

For too long, many in our town have taken the stance that business and development is bad, but we can no longer be held hostage by this thinking. Doing so has brought us to where we are now. A moment of truth and hopefully a realization that if we want to tackle affordable housing and make Ashland a place where families can truly live and grow, we must:

1) Commit to an innovative infill strategy that adds housing inventory and diversity.

2) Support business expansion and growth in all sectors so that our citizens can enjoy the income that supports families and allows our workforce to live in Ashland.

All of this can be done only if we are willing to take a new and innovative look at our current city codes and regulations as we enter the new year. In 2017 I am committed to work with my fellow city councilors and the mayor to find ways in which the city can lead this effort. Now is the time for us to move our economy forward if we truly want to make Ashland an affordable place to live.

— Greg Lemhouse is a member of the Ashland City Council.

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