Gov. John Kitzhaber headlined the Bend 2030 “Superforum” Tuesday at the Tower Theatre in Bend, joining a variety of local speakers to address the balance between livability and economic growth.
Formed in 2005, Bend 2030 is an all-volunteer body that set out to chart a course for Bend’s development over the next 25 years, considering among other things economic growth, environmental sustainability and developing a shared sense of community.
Tuesday’s event centered on the idea of “prosperity with a view,” a new take on Bend’s long-running reputation as a place known for its “poverty with a view.” Moderator Eli Ashley said the line emerged during past Bend 2030 efforts to determine what Bend residents want for the city, and it raises the question of whether Bend can “have it all.”
“Not just a view of the mountains, but a clear and compelling view of our future,” he said.
Attendees used electronic keypads to weigh in with real-time feedback on a handful of questions offered to Kitzhaber, first lady Cylvia Hayes, and a panel of local presenters.
Nate Liabraaten, representing Economic Development for Central Oregon, said the Central Oregon economy has shifted sharply since before the recession. While the total number of companies in the region has returned to 2007 levels, certain sectors have taken a bigger hit — there are 500 fewer firms in the construction trades than in 2007, and 100 fewer in financial services.
In looking to recruit business to the area, EDCO is particularly focused on the outdoor products industry and the software industry, Liabraaten said, both of which tend to employ people who put a high value on preserving and protecting natural spaces.
Kitzhaber and Hayes touched on their recent visit to Bhutan, and the Himalayan kingdom’s adoption of “Gross National Happiness” as a way of measuring its citizens’ quality of life.
The trip and the Gross National Happiness measure have both been widely disparaged, Kitzhaber said, but Oregonians need to be willing to challenge the belief that economic growth always leads to improved quality of life.
He said that while the state has added roughly 65,000 jobs since the end of the recession, they’ve mostly been at the high end and the low end of the wage scale. Many workers near the bottom of the ladder feel trapped, Kitzhaber said, and are unable to share in the experiences that contribute to the quality of life for those better off.
Central Oregon may have wonderful mountains and lakes and “really good beer,” Kitzhaber said, but those attributes don’t mean much to those who are struggling and who would benefit from larger investments in affordable housing and public transit.
Hayes, a Bend resident who came to Central Oregon nearly 20 years ago, said she can relate to the region’s “poverty with a view reputation,” recalling how she lived in a tent when she first arrived and did odd jobs until she found her niche as a sustainability consultant.
Just over the last 20 years, the paths to upward mobility have become fewer, Hayes said, while economic inequality has increased, a development damaging to individuals’ quality of life.
“There is significant evidence that the well-being of a society is influenced more directly by income inequality than across-the-board income levels,” Hayes said. “It affects all of us.”
Hayes gently chided the audience at the Tower, suggesting the crowd did not reflect the wider base of Central Oregon residents who need to be a part of the discussion on where the region goes in the future.
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