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January 10, 1921 - June 17, 2005

 

 

 

      

Klamath Basin economy slowly rebounding

October 29, 2006
By GERRY BAKSYS and TY BEAVER
The Associated Press
 

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) Rodney Todd moved to the Klamath region in 1970, when the timber industry dominated the local economy.

The Weyerhaeuser mill alone employed about 1,000 workers and put out millions of board feet of lumber a day. It was one of about 30 operating in the area most were in Klamath Falls, but others were in the smaller communities of Malin, Bly, Chiloquin and Dorris. Together they provided thousands of family-wage jobs and accounted for 80 percent of the area's economy.

"It's basically what kept ... communities alive for many decades," said Todd, who worked for 36 years as an Oregon State University Klamath County extension agent before retiring last June.

During that time, he watched as the mills closed one by one and lumber production slowed to a crawl. The federal government slowly withdrew national forest lands from private harvest.

Most mills permanently closed or consolidated, and many of their jobs disappeared forever. The closures threw the Klamath-area economy into a recession. Unemployment skyrocketed, passing 13 percent in 1994. Another recession followed in 2001 when the federal government cut off irrigation water to farmers in the Tule Lake and Klamath basins.

Today, the area is finally coming out of the doldrums, according to city and county leaders and economic development officials.

Unemployment is at 5.5 percent, the lowest rate since the 1970s.

Sales of existing and new homes are up, and several commercial and residential developments are under construction.

As mills continued to close through the early 1990s, business owners and city and county officials were forced to look to the future: What did they need to do to keep Klamath County economically viable for decades to come?

The answer was new industry, residential construction and population growth.

And the towns built on timber are now finding new economic footholds the service industry, manufacturing, tourism and health care.

Trey Senn, executive director of the Klamath County Economic Development Association, is among those seeking new opportunities for the Klamath Basin.

The first came in the form of new industry.

And the towns built on timber are now finding new economic footholds the service industry, manufacturing, tourism and health care.

Trey Senn, executive director of the Klamath County Economic Development Association, is among those seeking new opportunities for the Klamath Basin.

The first came in the form of new industry.

And more are coming.

Klamath Falls today is substantially different than the city was 20 years ago, leaders say.

Main Street, which was upgraded in the past decade with street lights, benches, flowers and geothermal sidewalks, is one example.

Fourteen years ago, the vacancy rate on Main Street was 30 percent. Today, storefronts are mostly filled.

"What I tell people who think they know Klamath Falls is if you haven't been here in two to three years, you haven't been here," Senn said. "There is a night and day difference. I came here 13 years ago, and I told myself that I would only be here one year. It wasn't nice. The lights weren't even on downtown."

Despite commercial and industrial growth, the Klamath Basin still maintains its agriculture and timber roots.

Today, about two-thirds of the county's manufacturing jobs are still found in the wood products industry.

Agriculture remains an important part of the Basin's economy, said Todd, the retired OSU extension agent. Farmers, some still recovering from the 2001 water crisis, today are competing on a global level while delivering their products for the lowest cost, he said.

The Basin, he added, needs to use what it has. Timber is still here, and if managed properly, could provide jobs and other benefits.

Local leaders say they don't want to see a crash like that of the timber industry, and the way to prevent it is to continue diversifying the Klamath Basin economy.

We were very susceptible to trends: good lumber prices versus bad, good ag prices versus bad," said county commissioner Al Switzer. "And the timber industry was at the mercy of the federal government."

Senn agreed: "We definitely had too many eggs in one basket a few years ago."

Today, city and county officials continue to talk about creating more industrial family-wage jobs and improving telecommunications to draw business and telecommuters.

Senn expects to see changes in the next two years.

"The battleships are all circling," he said.

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On the Net:

Weyerhaeuser: http://www.weyerhaeuser.com/

Aqua Glass: http://www.aquaglass.com/history.cfm

Klamath Community College: http://www.kcc.cc.or.us/

Oregon Institute of Technology: http://www.oit.edu/

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