The greening of Oregon's industry. As state's logging has rebounded, Silicon Forest is also sprouting
Portland, Ore. — It's raining -- again -- in northwest Oregon, but Kuninori Kawakami does not appear to mind. ``The volume of rain here is less than in Tokyo,'' he explains, as the water forms rivulets on the newly planted lawn outside his newly furnished office.
But it was the business climate, not the weather, that prompted Mr. Kawakami's company to choose Oregon over 14 other locations as the site for a new multimillion-dollar manufacturing plant. ``The State of Oregon was very active to bring Japanese companies here,'' says Kawakami, vice-president and plant general manager of NEC America Inc., the giant telecommunications-equipment company.
While the company had preferred a West Coast site all along, the state's enthusiasm played a key role in the final decision, he says. The state-of-the-art assembly plant, which opened in October, now employs 111 people. The master plan allows for expansion up to 3,000 workers within the next decade.
For a state that has always relied on its forests, fertile land, and other natural resources to fuel the economy, the active pursuit of outside business represents a dramatic shift. And the change has come none too soon, only now becoming strong enough to lift Oregon out of a recession that, for most of the nation, ended three or four years ago.
The new NEC America plant is indicative of the type of industry that has sprung up just west of Portland in a high-technology belt known as Silicon Forest, a name obviously inspired by California's Silicon Valley.
Activity in Silicon Forest has replaced more than half the state's 80,000 timber-industry jobs that disappeared since 1974. Today the state's jobless rate stands at 7.4 percent, still higher than the 6.9 percent national rate. But the gap has narrowed considerably since last April, when Oregon's 10.2 percent jobless mark was 2.9 percentage points above the nation's.
The road to recovery, however, has been bumpy -- and there are still some obstacles to be overcome. One of the most imposing roadblocks was the state's reputation for being self-satisfied, isolationist, and antibusiness, says Victor G. Atiyeh, a Republican governor who was elected in 1978 and reelected in 1982.
In his initial efforts to get out the word that Oregon was open for business, the governor says, he learned that the business community ``either didn't know we existed or had negative thoughts about us.'' This perception no doubt stemmed from a state slogan put forward in the 1960s: ``Come Visit But Don't Stay.''
Oregonians, worried about predictions of massive migration from California and fiercely determined to protect the state's bucolic beauty, enacted what were then the most stringent environmental and land-use laws in the nation.
Though the state's top officials are now unabashedly pro-business, ``we will not forsake the environment, although there is a suspicion from many [people] in the state that we will,'' says Gerry Thompson, the governor's chief of staff.
Rather, Ms. Thompson says, state leaders recognize that the environment is an asset to be protected -- and promoted.
In the push to bring new industry to Oregon, Governor Atiyeh says he envisioned a more diverse economy that would help the state avoid the ``ups and downs'' that come from heavy dependency on natural resources. In the search for ``clean'' industries, as well as new export markets for Oregon products, his gaze soon fell on the Pacific Rim.
But it seems his are not the only eyes fastened on the 23 Pacific Rim countries of the Far East. Last year, for the first time, US trade with Asia surpassed trade with Western Europe.
``I was one of 26 governors who led trade missions to Japan last year,'' Mr. Atiyeh says. This year, leaders of Japan's major business and trade organizations have put Oregon on their list of states to visit. Despite the governor's success overseas -- including negotiating a deal to sell Oregon wheat to Syria -- he has been criticized for going abroad while economic pressure at home should have commanded his attention.
Large pockets of unemployment and poverty still exist here, especially in former timber-industry strong-holds. In some instances the pockets are ``almost Appalachian'' in character, says Douglas Strain, chairman of the Oregon State Commission on Futures Research.
Although the timber industry is at last on the upswing -- now shipping products at a higher dollar value than ever before -- it has become more automated and will never again employ so many people.
Mr. Strain, a self-described futurist whose company built the state's first high-tech industrial park, says loggers and mill operators face ``the most difficult time'' finding comparable jobs. On a recent trip to San Diego, he happened to flag a taxi driven by a former logger who had given up hope for reemployment in Oregon.
It's a problem that concerns William Souther, a computer-consulting contractor who moved from New York to rural Yamhill County five months ago.
In that short time, he says, at least six local businesses have closed or moved elsewhere because the economy has been so weakened by the logging downturn. Mr. Souther and other business people in the county seat of McMinnville are trying to raise money to open a job-training center there.