Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cessna: Another Big-League Dream Has Flown

Another one bites the dust: Cessna announced yesterday that it's laying off the last 200 workers at its Bend manufacturing plant and closing the operation

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 8:37 AM

Another one bites the dust: Cessna announced yesterday that it's laying off the last 200 workers at its Bend manufacturing plant and closing the operation for good.


Ever determined to put the most positive possible spin on things, The Bulletin headlined its story this morning: "Area aviation officials say they'll survive Cessna's departure." Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, conceded that the loss of Cessna is a "big hit" but said he already is shopping the Cessna plant around to other potential aircraft-related occupants.

Lance Neibauer, the founder of Cessna's predecessor, Columbia Aircraft, shrugged off the closing of the Bend plant. "Granted, jobs are being lost, of course, but as far as the long-term outlook for general aviation in Central Oregon, I don't think it will have any particular impact other than the fact there's one less manufacturer," he was quoted as saying.

One less, true - but the biggest, and the one that local boosters were most hopeful about growing into a major employer.

In January 2008, The Bulletin published a glowing story under the headline "Bend confident in airport growth."

"There are big changes in the works at Bend Municipal Airport, already one of the biggest economic forces in Deschutes County," wrote reporter Peter Sachs. "An expansion at one manufacturer, dozens of new hangars and the prospect of other companies moving or growing at the airport mean the potential for at least 1,200 new jobs. That would double the airport's economic contribution to the region to more than $1 billion per year, according to city of Bend projections."

Those rosy visions prompted the city to commit $1.5 million to airport expansion. But, Sachs wrote, those were "dollars that officials are confident will come back many times over in the next five years."

Uh-huh.

Just a year ago, Cessna executives were talking about a big expansion of their Bend operation and demanding that the city provide a control tower at the Bend Airport by the end of 2009.

"We've got some huge growth numbers in 2010 that will be stymied if we don't have a control tower," Mark Withrow, general manager of Cessna's Bend plant, told the city council.

Uh-huh, again.

Don't expect the calls for airport expansion to cease now that Cessna has flown the coop, though. Just as kids dream about pitching for the Yankees or quarterbacking the Pittsburgh Steelers, the business and political leaders of Bend dream about attracting major-league manufacturers and transforming Bend into a major-league city.

Maybe it's time to grow up and ask whether that dream is realistic - or even worth pursuing.

Let's look at history. The only big manufacturing employers that survived here for any length of time were the Shevlin Hixon and Brooks Scanlon timber mills. They and their successors endured from the early 1900s to the early 1990s. When the supply of high-value timber was exhausted, the mills folded.

Now that the timber is gone, Central Oregon really has no other marketable natural resources to offer the world - unless there's a huge hidden demand out there for juniper trees, sagebrush and lava rocks. That means raw materials for manufacturing have to be brought here from elsewhere.

And that's a problem. Bend is isolated, a three-hour (or more) drive over mountain passes from any metropolitan center. It's not situated on a major waterway. Raw materials would have to be transported here by truck or train. Finished products would have to be transported out the same way. All that runs up costs.

This isn't saying that bringing major manufacturers to Bend is impossible, but bringing them - and keeping them - has always been a tough challenge. Now that the timber is gone, the only big private-sector employers that seem to thrive here are call centers, exploiting a different "natural resource" - a large supply of low-cost, unskilled labor.

Maybe it's time for local business and political leaders to stop chasing the chimera of turning Bend into a big, booming metropolis and focus instead on making it into what it realistically can be - a nice, livable small town.

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