An Economic Pairing at California-Oregon Border

Special to The Times

Straddling the California-Oregon border, two rural counties have an abundance of two things: natural beauty and economic despair.

And it's by capitalizing on the natural beauty that county leaders are hoping to turn around the economic despair.

To that end and more, Del Norte County in California and Curry County in Oregon have created an economic zone they say will give them more clout on issues like expansion of the Crescent City airport and construction of a tunnel along a scenic, slide-prone highway.

"It increases the political power here," said Craig Bradford, executive director of the Del Norte Economic Development Corp. "That is something we have never had, ever."

Officials from both counties inaugurated the Border Coast Economic Zone in a ceremony at the state line on Friday. A ribbon was stretched across U.S. 101, then cut to symbolize the opening of the border.

Economic zones have traditionally been designated by federal and state agencies to help boost development in distressed areas.

The border idea grew out of an effort between the two counties to improve the Crescent City airport, which offers commercial flights only to San Francisco and Sacramento, via Arcata. Officials hope to add flights to Medford, Ore.

"That will open up the whole Northwest to us, and it's closed now," Bradford said. "We have no rail service and we don't have a deep-sea port. We're left with crooked roads and air service. You can't straighten out crooked roads."

Leaders decided it was only one of many issues they had in common, said Marlyn Schafer, a Curry County commissioner.

"We should be working together. So we started just brainstorming. We said what we need to do is form an economic zone, to say there is no border here," Schafer said. "Everybody needs to look at the bigger picture now."

The economic zone will enable the counties to compete for federal funds with four U.S. senators and two representatives on their side. They will have more power to leverage grant money, and one county can provide matching funds for another on joint projects. They can pool their resources to hire lobbyists, create tour packages and -- in one proposed project -- build an environmentally safe incinerator that would accept garbage from several counties.

The collaboration is reminiscent of a movement that began before World War II. Several counties in far Northern California and southern Oregon -- fed up with paying taxes and getting no road-building funds in return -- attempted to secede and form "Jefferson" as a new state. The movement stalled when war broke out, but the attitude remains, Bradford said.

The economic zone is a sign that that attitude is "reemerging in more realistic and constructive ways," he said.

Another priority for officials is fixing a long-standing problem: rockslides on U.S. 199, a major highway that runs from Crescent City to Grants Pass, Ore. One stretch, called "The Narrows," is particularly bad, said David Finigan, chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.

"It's just a real treacherous area. There's a rock wall on one side and a river on the other," he said. Officials will lobby for $100 million in federal funds to build a tunnel through the area.

Three-hundred miles from the metropolitan centers of Portland and San Francisco, the two border counties, with a combined population of about 50,000, share much in common. Unemployment in both counties hovers around 8%. Economic problems caused nearly 40 years ago by a catastrophic tsunami and a 100-year flood became worse when the formation of national and state parks -- which now make up 76% of Del Norte County's land mass -- took forests out of timber production.

That and environmental restrictions led to the closure of all lumber and plywood mills in Del Norte County.

Curry County's timber companies have suffered a similar fate and both counties' fishing industries have declined precipitously.

California's Pelican Bay State Prison, built in 1990, is now Del Norte County's largest employer, providing more than 1,000 jobs.

But the state and federal governments have not, for the most part, been of much help.

A published list of federal "pork" projects for California communities is a couple of inches thick, Bradford said.

Yet "not one of those have brought any economic relief to our corner of the state, and I think you would see the same in Oregon," he said.

The two counties haven't always been the best of friends. Del Norte County officials grumble, for example, when residents drive to Oregon to buy cheaper gas or avoid state sales taxes.

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