Oregon does an about-face and welcomes outsiders

Last July, the road sign at the Oregon border with California that read ''Welcome to Oregon - We Hope You Enjoy Your Visit'' was hauled down. In its place, Gov. Victor Atiyeh and former Gov. Tom McCall hoisted up a sign that read simply, ''Welcome to Oregon.''

That act may have heralded the end of an era that's been brought to a close by a soured economy.

After years of trying to stave off newcomers and shield the state's natural beauty from being trampled by the crowds, Oregonians themselves are packing up and moving out for the first time since the pioneers first settled here in the 1840s.

''Come visit, but don't stay,'' said the late Governor McCall in the 1960s and '70s as hordes of pilgrims made their way to this environmentalists' Mecca. But in 1979, Governor Atiyeh turned around and declared the state ''open for business,'' welcoming both new residents and new commerce. Oregon, a leader of the limits-to-growth movement for so long, now was starting to smart from the pinch of the recession.

But neither provincialism nor sudden business savvy affected the wave of settlers - until now. It has taken high unemployment and a stubbornly stagnant timber industry to reverse the flow that now finds more people leaving than coming to Oregon.

Californians, especially, used to migrate to Oregon by the thousands. A tracing of unemployment statistics shows that many unemployed Oregonians are moving to California, which ironically has a higher unemployment rate (12 percent) than Oregon (11.8 percent).

''A lot of people lost their jobs about a year ago, and their unemployment payments are about to run out,'' says Earl Fairbanks, research analyst with the Oregon State Employment Commission. ''Many of them came here from California, and so it makes sense to go back where they came from. Even if the unemployment rate is bad there, too, the key is the support of family and friends.''

Atiyeh readily admits that he changed the sign at the California border because Oregon is trying to revive its economy.

''But that was just the impetus that got us moving,'' the governor says. ''There's been a change in Oregon's . . . attitudes. We want companies to come here.''

Republican Atiyeh won reelection in November by the widest margin in 32 years of Oregon elections - despite near-record unemployment and a stagnant economy.

Oregon's reliance on the sagging timber industry has made it vulnerable to a recession where interest rates have been high, and new housing starts dropped sharply. But a thaw seems to be on its way, as national housing starts increase and interest rates fall.

Still, Atiyeh knows that Oregon needs to attract new and different kinds of industry in order to be freed from its overdependence on timber. A new state Economic Development Department is courting companies throughout the nation.

Their principle flirtations are with high-tech firms. Oregon is trying to beef up high-tech education by embarking on cooperative ventures between the state government and private industry. The Economic Development Department has the chief executive of Tektronix, a high-tech firm, trumpeting the virtues of Oregon in an advertisement in Scientific American magazine.

The desire to preserve the landscape was popularized in a 1975 novel, ''Ecotopia,'' in which a new nation is shut off from the US because of its radical environmental laws.

''The long-term trend, especially in the Northwest, is still toward Ecotopian ways,'' says author Ernest Callenbach.

Mr. Callenbach might be right. In a November referendum election, voters decided to keep stringent, statewide land-use planning laws that tightly rein in new development. And a new 20-year energy plan recommends that the region rely on conservation and renewable resources instead of building new coal- and nuclear-fired plants.

Thus Oregon has some serious decisions to make: how to attract needed new business without sacrificing the fresh air, clear water, and forested hills.

But some in the corporate world are said to have written Oregon off. The state isn't close to big markets. It hasn't bent over backward to give business a break in the tax structure. It no longer has an abundance of cheap energy. And the colleges and universities, crucial in developing high-tech industry, are nothing to rave about, they say.

Economic Development director Douglas Carter is trying to convince companies otherwise. He says the labor force is well-educated, with a low turnover rate. Housing is affordable. There's room to expand.

And while courting of high-tech, state officials are also shoring up the once-robust lumber industry that is being partly lost to the South, a region much closer to its markets and where trees grow more quickly.

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