Uber Could Help Eugene’s Economy in Two Ways

Eugene’s economic future lies at the intersection of technology and tourism. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have been idling at that intersection since 2015, when Eugene pulled them over out of safety concerns.

An agreement appears to be in the offing. Barring a last-minute snag in negotiations, visitors and residents across Lane County may soon be able to order a ride from their smartphone without calling one of the area’s traditional taxi companies. Residents may find themselves getting into a neighbor’s car. This detail could end up being more important than you think.

To explain why, let me take you on a little side trip. A few months ago, a few friends of mine and I chartered a sailboat to visit Greece’s smallest inhabited islands in the northern Aegean Sea. I hiked to the top of one island that has literally one inhabitant. The area has been closed to development to preserve habitat for the monk seal, but an ancient monastery was allowed to remain, so long as they keep one monk (human) as its caretaker.

On the way to this wilderness preserve, we stopped for two nights in Skopelos, an island that is almost exactly the same size as Eugene — about 40 square miles. Skopelos claims 5,000 residents, but that number halves each winter and triples during tourism season.

I met two men there who will tell the story. Tom Amygdalitsis invited us to a wine-making festival. He and some friends want to help locals learn to make things that others in Europe will buy. Since winemaking on the island goes back centuries, they hope to inspire their neighbors to sell what they don’t consume.

Tom and his friend Angelique have been at this for a while. They thought they found a perfect export product with sweet-sour plums that grow perfectly on the island. They taste better than the California variety. They were confident they could sell their bounty for a lower price until they discovered the California price was for pitted plums.

Pitting their own plums would add extra expense and remove half the weight, making them no longer competitive on the world market. So they’ve moved on to wine. It’s a difficult road ahead.

That same day, I met Zahos Stamoulis. He was photographing a bride and groom who had spent the entire day getting married. Everything you’ve heard about big fat Greek weddings is true. I offered our boat as a backdrop for some photos as the sun was setting behind us over the harbor. The full moon had already risen.

He gave me his business card. One side touted his wedding photography. The other side showed his car and taxi service. “It’s all the same,” he explained. He drives his taxi most weekdays, unless he gets a photography assignment that pays him a higher wage. He lives year-round in an idyllic setting by doing both.

Eugene is only metaphorically an island, but its idyl inspires many to do what they can to make ends meet. Ask any Saturday Market vendor what they do every winter and you’ll hear stories. Many local residents — especially in Lane County’s rural areas —were stringing together gigs long before anyone called it a “gig economy.”

Bettering greater Eugene’s economic fortunes will require both strategies being pursued on Skopelos Island. We must learn to create value that can be sold to people who don’t live here. That money earned elsewhere will be deposited and spent locally. We must support these “traded sector” businesses. But others can’t wait for a rising tide that lifts all boats. Ends must be met immediately.

Uber can help us with both. They will burnish our reputation as a region that is both tech-savvy and environmentally conscious. Visitors won’t have to rent a car when they visit. They can instead be picked up by a resident who needs some extra cash but can’t commit to a full shift with a taxi company.

Those conveniences will lure more visitors to invest their money here, while giving more residents another way to make ends meet. Our region wins twice.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.