Since the turn of the 20th century, Oregon has been more like two states.

Urban and rural. Inner and outer. In support of workplace regulations and against them. Against Prohibition and in support of it.

These "very real differences" have existed between the two sides since the beginning, said Gail Achterman, a state transportation commission member, a member of Northwest Environmental Watch and the first director of the Institute of Natural Resources at Oregon State University, who spoke at Monday's Columbia Forum in Astoria.

However, the urban-rural divide has changed, its boundary becoming increasingly blurry. And Oregonians have an opportunity - and an obligation - to continue forging connections across the state, building - and rebuilding - economies, she said.

"You break down the urban-rural divide, and you build communities that are the kind of communities that this place and these people deserve," Achterman said, "by thinking about cooperation and community, and how you can sustain that over time in a way that nurtures people."

It's a process made difficult by the divisions that have persisted across the state, which are visible in politics, education and poverty levels, she said. While by definition, most places in Oregon are urban with 2,500 or more people, Portland and other urban centers have much denser populations.

In the 1980s, the state underwent a dramatic shift, when "the state's economy was transformed from one that relies on natural resources" to one that relies on high-technology, knowledge-based industries in urban areas, she said, noting that to survive, traditional economies in outer regions must change.

"If rural Oregon was its own state, it would be the fourth-poorest state in the country," Achterman said.

Why does the separation matter? Achterman pointed to taxes and the overall tax system. While many people point to a divide, Oregon is very connected when it comes to its economies, she said.

The Portland region pays more in taxes than it receives for state services; whereas rural residents benefit from the economic vitality of urban areas, she said. Rural areas need metropolitan ones to thrive; urban centers "would benefit with someone to share the burden."

And beyond that, it's a civic duty of citizens as stewards of the state "to build links across the state that will make Oregon whole and thriving," she said.

Some people are already helping make that happen, she said, noting that companies can form cross-state relationships, state leaders can help and local communities can decommodify products and create high-quality, sought-after brands - much like the local seafood initiative.

But connections aren't just about products, she said, answering a question from Patrick Corcoran, an educator with Oregon Sea Grant, which develops research, outreach and education programs to help people understand the marine, geologic, social and economic forces that shape the region and to help conserve its resources.

Astoria's Corcoran voiced concerns that "place strategies" receive more attention than "people strategies," which would lead people in Clatsop County to ask, "What are people's skill mixes today, what do they need to be and how do we close that gap?" he said.

"I don't know where to go with that other than to raise people strategies on par with the sexier place strategy and investments," he said.

"When I talk to people who have lived on the land, who have lived in rural communities, who have worked hard all their lives, I find incredibly creative, innovative people," Achterman responded. "There's that story on Hurricane Katrina: The doctors and lawyers were worthless and the guy who ran the gas station was the hero of the community because he really knew how to do something."

While it's often easier to focus on "place strategies," which may be more easily measured, "Let's think about how we can learn from people and help them make their dreams realities, because they may have much better ideas than the rest of us," she said.

Facing mythic or real divisions and confronted with changing economies, some states have found success with their economic development strategies, Achterman said.

"We haven't been real strategic about our economic development strategy in this state for a long, long time," she said. "If you look at the states that have been the most successful in economic diversification and economic development in a positive way, most if not all of them have done it through a combination of investment in infrastructure and this linkage between industry clusters, where you have industries that have unique capacities ... and centers of excellence and research universities."

That's a strategy that the Oregon Innovation Council which she works with, wants to pursue.

But as many Oregon communities move toward tourism-based economies, Susan Spring of Gearhart wondered whether it was the right way to go. "Is that what tourism should look like?" she asked, questioning whether it would bring jobs.

"There are a lot of small businesses that without tourism wouldn't exist," Achterman said. "I think there are many communities throughout the Western United States that are dealing with this, and I don't think anybody's figured it out. I don't think there's a simple answer."

Still, she believes that Oregonians have the intelligence and cooperation to be stewards of the state.

"There is a divide, but it's not clear, it's not crisp," she said. "I think we can be worthy stewards of this place."

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