U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden chatted live online with Wasco County residents May 2, offering to help with problems that ranged from supporting clinics by attracting professionals and replacing expensive medical equipment to housing for low and middle-income residents. The problems — and the solutions — are all connected, Wyden said.
Creating anchor industries, including specialty health care, attracts professionals and staff, brings wages into the area, and encourages developers to build homes, Wyden suggested.
“I’m all in. Let’s get to it,” he said several times during the hour-long discussion. After hearing visitors speak, he offered help from his office to navigate roadblocks to success.
Many of the challenges in Wasco County were already present but ramped up by the pandemic, residents told Wyden.
Wyden said the federal stimulus funds — $3.2 million to The Dalles, $130,000 to Dufur, $94,000 to Maupin, $89,000 to Mosier, for example — will provide a “booster shot” to Oregon communities impacted by the pandemic.
Sue Knapp, a Maupin city councilor and board member on the White River Health District, talked about the rural community’s attempts to build a new health clinic and attract health providers, especially behavioral, dental and school-based health professionals.
Wyden said his office would help the district’s Deschutes Rim Clinic gain status as a Rural Health Clinic, connecting it to additional state and federal aid.
David Warden, new executive director of the Mid-Columbia Health Foundation, which helps support Mid-Columbia Medical Center, asked Wyden for help raising money for $1.3 million in state-of-the art cancer technology. After thousands of treatments over the past 10 years, Warden said the older equipment needs to be replaced.
Nate Stice, a community health and housing advocate, added the importance of building affordable homes for the people who come to Wasco County to work. “There’s a growing crisis of affordability,” Stice said of Wasco County. He’s unofficially tracked housing trends in the area and said prices for rentals have skyrocketed.
Sharon Thompson Thornberry agreed that affordable housing competition is fierce. She had recently applied to rent an apartment that had 43 other interested renters.
“Units are snapped up quickly,” Stice said.
Vaccinations are key to addressing the pandemic fallout, Wyden said. Next in importance for Wasco County is creating economic anchor businesses — large projects in medical centers could draw both developers, businesses and employees, as well as the promise of residents.
“Something like this could be an economic multiplier,” Wyden said, referring to health clinic and cancer technology projects.
Lisa Farquharson, The Dalles Chamber of Commerce president admitted there are urgent challenges, both physical and financial in Wasco County. Buildable land is limited, and the city’s Urban Growth Boundary may not soon expand, she said. In addition, most businesses are focused on survival and recovery during the pandemic, which recently resurged in Wasco County, sending its restaurant operations back outdoors. Finding workers under the circumstances is nearly impossible.
“We either need to open the businesses, or get assistance,” Farquharson said.
Wyden asked her to send his office a list of businesses on the edge, to help them with available assistance.
“We’ve been talking about pieces that are interrelated — health care, housing, business needs, health,” Wyden said. “This discussion is to be continued.”