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The Oregonian editorial: As population growth picks up, contentious issues need attention
Author: The Oregonian Editorial Board
Posted: January 6, 2014

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Tom McCall's legacy in Oregon is secure, but one of the revered former governor's most famous proclamations has been ignored rather routinely over the past few decades. People do indeed "move here to live" instead of just visiting.

This week, United Van Lines tagged Oregon as the No. 1 moving destination for 2013. The claim is based on an annual study of the moving company's customers, but more scientific population studies support the notion that Oregon remains a popular place – especially the Portland metropolitan area.

Most years since 1950, Oregon has grown faster than the rest of the nation. The Great Recession, which hit harder here than in many parts of the country, temporarily pushed Oregon's population growth below the national rate. But with the value of houses increasing and job opportunities improving it's becoming easier to move, and Oregon again is attracting new residents. Portland State University's Population Research Center estimates that Oregon's population grew by 35,285 from July 2012 to July 2013, an increased of slightly less than 1 percent. About one-third of the increase was from migration.

McCall, a champion of the environment and land-use planning, knew that population growth would be a threat to the quality of life he sought to protect. It doesn't take many trips on Sunset Highway at rush hour to confirm that he was right. But while Oregon's magnetism creates short-term challenges, it also creates long-term opportunities for economic growth.

First, the challenges. Pick a contentious issue, and there's a good chance migration plays a role in it. No-parking apartments provide a place for new residents – particularly those who are young and without children – to live, but reduce parking options for people who already live in the neighborhoods. Oregon's unemployment and underemployment rates remain above the national average, in part because people move here without jobs and stay even when they get laid off. Of course, more people equal more cars – even in bicycle-loving Portland – and that contributes to traffic congestion.

It's easy to see why many people already in Oregon would like to see the ghost of McCall return and erect roadblocks along the state's borders. A short article on the moving survey drew more than 200 comments on OregonLive, many of them negative.

But in the 21st century, the ability to import knowledge is a big advantage – one that many economists predict will become more and more important. The Portland area's ability to attract highly educated workers helps offset Oregon's lack of an elite university system. And though Portland's creative class draws jokes and barbs, research by two Portland State professors shows that young college educated workers in Portland start businesses at twice the rate of their counterparts elsewhere. Growing companies like Elemental Technologies use the presence of other young workers – as well as Portland's amenities and an inspiring workplace – to attract talented workers to the city.

Population growth also matters outside of Portland. The areas of Oregon that have expanded economically generally have benefitted from an influx of talent and resources. An influx of newcomers – especially retirees from California – helped fuel growth in central and southern Oregon before the housing collapse. Because of their dependence on the housing market, Bend and Medford were among the hardest hit parts of Oregon during the recession, but both cities and surrounding areas are beginning to rebound.

Counties along the Columbia River also have benefitted from population growth, as well as the emergence of the drone industry and good transportation infrastructure. Every county from Hood River to Morrow has an unemployment rate below the state average, and Umatilla County's 7.9 percent rate is lower than the rates of most other rural counties. All of those counties except for tiny Sherman are growing, providing an available workforce for potential employers.

The voices on both sides of the growth debate have points that need to be addressed in 2014 and beyond. The ability to attract talent is one of Oregon's greatest economic strengths. But as the economy improves, tensions from growth will increase. Local and state government cannot ignore those tensions. Efforts to improve transportation options in Washington County must move from talk to action. The city of Portland and Multnomah County need to pay more attention to creating sites suitable for new businesses and less time micro-managing the businesses that exist. The Legislature, education leaders and local voters need to work together to put schools on solid financial footing.

How well Oregon addresses these difficult issues will determine whether the state remains a starred location on the moving map.