A look at local economy, real estate and law enforcement

By Charles Kocher, Pilot staff writer February 01, 2013 08:54 pm

Continued slow economic growth, clear signs of recovery in the real estate market, the prospects for law enforcement — or the lack of it — and changes in the Easter lily industry were all highlights of the 2013 Business Outlook Conference Friday.

Sponsored by the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce, the day-long event attracted more than 125 participants to the Tolowa Event Center at Lucky 7 Casino in Smith River.

“Where are we going?” asked longtime conference keynote speaker Dr. John Mitchell, a regional economist. “We’re talking about continued slow growth. That’s not an exciting forecast, but it’s not a recession.” 

Nor do all the signs reassure Mitchell that the continued growth will be guaranteed. Citing lots of nagging questions, Mitchell said he likened the situation to a child’s belief in the tooth fairy, where they get something for nothing and then learn the realities of life. He said some of those myths include “the free medical care fairy, the no new taxes fairy, the rich will pay fairy, and the entitlements fairy. 

“These are the kinds of things policy makers will have to confront.”

He also worried how the Federal Reserve will handle monetary policies as the economy continues to grow, since it already is forcing short-term interest rates to zero. “Remember,” he said, “the recession is over. The next turn in economic growth is a downturn.”

Mitchell said the housing industry is among those coming back, and his comments were reinforced by a local panel on real estate trends.

Fran Gatti of Crescent City and Bryan Tillung of Brookings, each a new president of their Realtor boards, said sales figures are clearly up and continuing to improve. Their figures were bolstered by the same trends in closings and filings reported by Larry Ball of First American Title.

Del Norte County residential sales totaled 253 in 2012, up from 167 in 2010, said Gatti. “What we are seeing in our market is investors with cash,” she noted, with lower-end properties showing the most activity.

In Curry County, Tillung said, there were 265 sales in 2012, the highest since 2007, and many of them were also investors with cash. “We are starting to see a trend where things are improving right now.”

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop and Del Norte Sheriff Dean Wilson apologized for ending the conference on a sour note in their joint presentation.

“We’re looking at shutting the whole thing (sheriff’s office) down come June 30,” said Bishop, since his budget makes up most of the county’s dwindling general fund. “We have a chance to redefine the county; we have a choice, and what we will decide remains to be seen.”

In Josephine County, where the sheriff’s office has shut down most services, Bishop said, “It really is the wild, wild west out there, in O’Brien and Selma and some of those areas.” 

“You can’t depend on local law enforcement to be there,” said Wilson. “We can not longer provide that level of service. We’re going to see less and less services provided.”

“My job is to keep you safe and your job is to get me the money to do that,” Bishop said. 

Other sessions during the day included a history of how counties have lost significant revenue from federal timber sales, and a recent survey of Curry residents that showed they recognize the problem, but do not agree on how to raise funds to solve it.

“There were 73 percent who are willing to pay some small increase in taxes,” said Georgia Nowlin in presenting the results of the Oregon’s Kitchen Table survey. “But there was no clear majority on the approach.”

Asked which funding option he favors, Bishop said he would prefer a permanent tax levy, through a law enforcement district, but noted that “it takes time to set it up.”

In the annual “Industry Showcase,” Rob Miller of Dahlstrom & Watt Bulb Farm in Smith River advised businesses to be willing to change with changes in their markets and conditions. 

The firm is just one of four that supply almost all the Easter lily bulbs in the world, down from about 900 after World War II and 26 growers in 1975. “That tells us that it’s not as easy as you might think,” Miller said.

Miller recounted changes in Dahlstrom & Watt that included moving the initial Easter lily bulb farms because of soil conditions, building greenhouses to force bulbs to bloom at Easter, funding research to keep area lily growers competitive, moving into green plants, then flowering plants, and now hydrangea cuttings.

“You have to keep moving; you have to modify what you’re doing,” Miller said. “It’s a battle every day, because it changes.”

Other presentations during the conference included:

•News that the Smith River Rancheria’s new $10 million hotel in the Lucky 7 complex  — Howonquet Lodge — should be open in May.

•Encouragement for businesses to join in the South Coast Employer’s Council so that they can help influence operations of the Oregon Employment Division. 

•Details of the workforce and demographics of both Curry and Del Norte counties. 

•A report that deposits at Rogue Federal Credit Union have risen significantly since it assumed the assets of the former Chetco Federal Credit Union at the beginning of the year.