The Board of Josephine County Commissioners heard testimony from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc. and Rogue Valley Council of Governments at their Feb. 1 weekly business session, held at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass.
SOREDI Executive Director Colleen Padilla presented first, and started with a brief history of her organization.
“We were created in 1987 as a private/public nonprofit by the business community and our four founding fathers: Josephine County, Jackson County, Medford and Grants Pass,” she stated.
Padilla said all 15 jurisdictions in the region support SOREDI’s complimentary business services, along with 175 other organizations that count themselves as members.
The executive director relayed, “We had an amazing elected official’s event on Monday.”
Padilla noted none of the commissioners attended but representatives from 13 of the 14 other local jurisdictions showed up. She hoped the county would send a representative to the next of these events.
SOREDI’s vision is to become the most business-friendly region on the West Coast, according to Padilla, and their mission is to advance business in Southern Oregon to foster economic vitality by helping companies and entrepreneurs launch, relocate and prosper.
As the region’s economic development district, designated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, Padilla said SOREDI is required to coordinate the One Rogue Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a roadmap for the region’s work in economic development.
The five primary initiatives of this roadmap are business development, talent, innovation, tourism and placemaking.
“It’s not done in isolation,” Padilla said. “We have many partners. We have a CEDS committee of all 13 jurisdictions and the two counties.
“It’s not just our work; it’s the region’s work.”
According to Padilla, SOREDI has lent out over $22 million to 257 applicants since 1994, through a gap financing program for new, expanding and start-up companies. Over $8 million of this has been to just over 100 companies in JoCo, including Great Cats World Park, Cascade Auto Recycling, Weekend Brewing Company, J&P Auto Recyclers and Rogue Truck Body.
Padilla also boasted of her organization’s efforts to bolster disaster response, hiring a disaster liaison after the 2020 wildfires, advocating for funds to help economic revitalization in the burn scar area, and setting aside $13.8 million for planning, infrastructure and economic revitalization.
On a personal note, Padilla remarked, “It’s been my pleasure to serve Southern Oregon and be at SOREDI for 21 years. We are uniquely positioned to reach out to businesses and find out what they need.”
Commissioner John West took a combative tone with Padilla during a post-presentation exchange, saying he had met with the owners of Rogue Truck Body, who told him they sought to expand from two locations in the Illinois Valley to a third in Merlin and hadn’t received any assistance from SOREDI.
“I’m just wondering why we would spend the money if you’re not helping them get here and provide more jobs,” West remarked.
Padilla claimed she had not heard Rogue Truck Body wanted to expand, saying, “We visit them regularly. I’ve been visiting them since I started with SOREDI in 2000, so they’re aware of our services… We are a staff of five people so sometimes we don’t get out to see everybody on a weekly basis or even a monthly basis, but it’s only because we weren’t aware. We’re totally willing to help them with whatever they want to do in Merlin.”
Board Chair Herman Baertschiger said that while he believes SOREDI has “value”, his top priority is public safety and he indicated the county would pull financial support from SOREDI if it was required to adequately fund the Sheriff’s Office.
“If we’re a community that people aren’t gonna be safe in, you’re not gonna have tourism,” Baertschiger said. “I want everybody to know that we are prioritizing with the little bit of money we have discretion on, we’re probably going to prioritize the Sheriff’s Office.”
Commissioner Dan DeYoung supported this notion, remarking, “I’m not gonna invite anyone here, including my own relatives, if I can’t guarantee a certain reasonable amount of safety when they get here. I’m not gonna ask them to move their businesses here, their families, their employees, anything. Because if we can’t keep them safe, I don’t want that responsibility.”
Padilla does not feel that it would jeopardize her organization if JoCo were to withdraw its support, saying, “SOREDI is not going away. We hope that we’ll find a way downstream to continue support if we have to be something you consider taking off for a while. We won’t go away, though. We’ll still serve the entire region and the business community. It happens to be that right now we’re in good stead financially.”
Ann Marie Alfrey, executive director of RVCOG, presented next, and began with her organization’s mission statement: “We shall act as a catalyst to promote quality of life, effective and efficient services and leadership in regional communication, cooperation, planning and action in Southern Oregon.”
RVCOG was established in 1968 by local jurisdictions in Jackson and Josephine counties, and currently has 24 members – 15 local governments and nine special districts/ higher education entities.
Alfrey delved into the departments within RVCOG, which include: Community Development; Senior Nutrition; Natural Resources; Transportation Planning; General Administration; Senior and Disability Services; and Land Use Planning.
As for funding, Alfrey said RVCOG “runs pretty lean and mean” with the budget for this fiscal year being $12.5 million, received from the 24 members paying $48,000 in total, the Older Americans Act, intergovernmental agreements, federal and state grants, etc.
Alfrey stressed the vital partnership between RVCOG and JoCo in getting the Josephine County Senior Resources Center up and running. She also shone a spotlight on RVCOG’s Meals on Wheels and Food & Friends programs, reporting that from July through December 2022, 47,222 meals were provided to seniors in Josephine County by 87 volunteers, who put in 2,159 hours in congregate meal sites and 6,001 hours on home delivery routes.
Anticipating the same scrutiny the commissioners placed Padilla under, Alfrey wanted to clarify the “huge impact” RVCOG’s programs have on Josephinians, asserting that her organization’s expenditures serving residents of unincorporated JoCo exceed $300,000, which dwarfs the $7,212 membership price tag for the county.
Addressing public safety, Alfrey stated, “I know it’s been a struggle in the county, and it’s really important.”
She added that RVCOG volunteers foster public safety in that their meal delivery endeavors double as wellness checks on isolated seniors. They are also trained to notify family members or law enforcement if a senior is supposed to be home but does not answer their door to receive their meal.
The RVCOG executive director concluded by saying, “The ask from RVCOG is to continue our partnership with Josephine County. It is very important to us and to our region.”
The commissioners did not question Alfrey as they did Padilla, instead offering praise of the many programs RVCOG orchestrates locally and how they benefit the community. There was no indication the board is considering cutting ties with the organization.