Report encourages continuing improvements

The world-wide pandemic has closed businesses, curtailed jobs, and slowed growth in the Gorge, according to a COVID-19 Economic needs assessment prepared by the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD).

Despite hardships, the assessment predicted the region would rebound with limited long-term economic impacts and a strong recovery overall.

MCEDD is a governing body that supports economic development in Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington, and Hood River, Wasco, and Sherman counties in Oregon.

The 28-page report was presented to the Hood River County Board of Commissioners June 21 to assist with plans to distribute the county’s $4.53 million in federal American Rescue Plan Allocations (ARPA) — funds aimed at offsetting the economic impact of the pandemic. The county will receive about half of the funds this fiscal year, and the other half, next year. Added together counties, cities and other jurisdictions in the five-county area are scheduled to receive about $24 million in federal rescue funds over the next two years.

On June 21, Hood River County Commissioners discussed options for distributing the funds including using some of the funds to sustain pandemic health services through 2026. Other suggestions, in no particular order, include directing funds to a grant program for small businesses, districts and nonprofits, supporting law enforcement services, addressing affordable housing issues and land-use backlogs, making county building improvements, hiring a recovery coordinator, among others.

Commissioners will discuss plans for distributing plans in more detail at the July 19 meeting.

Meanwhile, the MCEDD report supplied information about the pandemic’s impact from community and business leaders representing more than two dozen organizations. The re-port summarized the top concerns and resources available to address short and long-term economic recovery.

Among highlights of pandemic’s impact on the region, according to the report:

Job and wage losses experienced were immediate and extensive. Job losses in 2020 were from 8-16% compared to 2019. Hood River County lost 10.7% of its jobs; Wasco County, 5.8%; Sherman, 7.6%; Skamania, 12%; and Klickitat, 6%.

Hardest hit were the region’s employers in the tourism, hospitality and healthcare industries, especially small businesses in rural areas.

44% of businesses in the Gorge had to lay off or terminate employees.

Agricultural producers and farmworkers were challenged by health restrictions.

Healthcare providers lost important income from elective procedures while adapting to telehealth programs and responding to the pandemic crisis.

Top needs for recovery, according to the report, are:

Small business support. Oregon has only recovered about 37% of its pandemic business losses. Identifying and supporting businesses hardest hit is critical to recovery.

Community Infrastructure improvements, including attainable housing for all income-levels, broadband internet, and public transportation, are critical for recovery. The pandemic has intensified these already-urgent needs.

Workforce support — Without childcare providers, many of whom closed their small businesses during the pandemic, parents can’t return to work. In 2020, of parents surveyed, 60 percent said they had to miss work three times or more due to lack of available childcare.

Improved Resilience — The region has recovered from floods, fires, winter storms, landslides, and now, a pandemic. Identifying weaknesses and improving training for disaster can reduce disruptions to the economy.