(How to) Make Oregon a Hot Spot

Economists have made a startling discovery. Oregon’s rural “Timber Belt” has lost jobs and people over the last decade, but a new set of inhabitants — mostly retirees — have taken their place.

The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis detailed this unexpected resurgence in a report released this week. Unlike the Rust Belt and the Corn Belt, the Timber Belt has seen a measurable upside to its economic migration. For once, American economists are seeing a belt that doesn’t need tightening.

Retirees and “seconders” (people building second homes or second careers) are using the money or equity they’ve amassed elsewhere and choosing the country life. Rural Oregon has been quietly replacing income with wealth. What the report doesn’t tell us is what we should do about it.

It’s easy to resent the wealthy. We resisted the last wave of so-called Californicators. Portlanders are seeing “No Californians” stickers appear on real estate signs, as locals express their disapproval of escalating home prices and cash buyers from our southern neighbor.

Our small towns are not inclined to such inhospitality, and we’re well protected from any plunderous urges newcomers may have brought with them. The only rudeness necessary is their awakening that a 20-acre forest homestead cannot become a subdivision when they tire of the solitude.

Our land use laws will protect us from being overrun with the relocated well-to-do, but we would do well not to rely on outsider wealth entirely. Gentrification has never plagued a rural housing market, but it would be bad if it did.

To prevent that, Oregon should become the first state to offer all its residents single-payer wi-fi.

Providing high-speed Internet access for all Oregonians will bring income opportunities to our rural lands. It would improve the lives of our poorest citizens the way rural electrification did almost a century ago.

“Single payer” got a black eye when it was attached to “health care.” As the United States Supreme Court summarized so clearly, health care is like broccoli — government subsidies won’t make everybody like it.

But people like single-payer schools and single-payer space exploration, along with single-payer roads and single-payer bridges. Universal broadband would give rural retirees Skype and Netflix connections.

More importantly, those needing an income would gain automatic access to e-commerce sites like Etsy and Ebay. Imagine what entrepreneurial or telecommuting opportunities may follow. Rural Oregon would see benefits that only have occurred naturally in cities.

Plot the trend lines to see the opportunity here. In downtown Eugene, Broadway Commerce Center is being wired for super-fast connectivity at a fraction of what most tenants were paying. The city of Eugene wants to extend that to all of downtown.

“For the next two years, this connectivity will be a competitive advantage for us,” Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz told me, “but if we don’t do it, five years from now, we’ll be playing catch-up.” He and others can see a new normal of connectivity emerging.

Sri Lanka soon will be the first nation to have universal free Internet access. Estonia is not far behind. But so far, no states have jumped on this broadbandwagon. Oregonians love being first, and here’s our chance.

What would companies charge for up to 4 million customers, on one bill? Probably less per person than you and I are paying right now.

Once we know the cost — allowing that any infrastructure or proprietary technology would be owned by the state if the service contract is not renewed — we’d simply have to tax ourselves to raise the funds. Any method we choose will likely cost each connected household less than it’s paying already. And those Oregonians who have been without will have something they’ll need to prosper in the future.

Once universal Internet connectivity is assumed, there’s no telling what companies might choose Oregon for their next job-creating ventures. We’ll begin bridging that stubborn and widening gap between urban and rural incomes across our state.

It’s not as sure an economic equalizer as good schools and safe roads, but it’s something that would turn heads in the other 49 states and that’s worth something.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.