Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Welcome to Chelm-on-the-Deschutes

Posted By on Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 9:44 PM

In Jewish folklore there is a town called Chelm in which all the inhabitants are complete idiots.

Over the years many jokes have been told about the foolishness of the people of Chelm. For example:

Two men of Chelm are digging a foundation for a house. One says to the other, “We have a problem. What are we going to do with all this dirt we’re digging out for the foundation?”

“Not to worry,” the other man says. “We’ll dig another hole and put it in there.”

The first man is satisfied with this solution for a while. But then he says, “Wait a minute – that won’t work! Where will we put the dirt from the second hole?”

“No problem,” the other man assures him. “We’ll just dig a hole twice as big and put the dirt from the foundation and the other hole in there.”

There’s something very Chelm-like about the behavior of Bend’s “leaders” when it comes to dealing with growth. They haven’t figured out how to fix the mess created by the latest boom and bust yet, but they’re doing their damnedest to get another boom cranked up.

For example, the Business section of this morning’s Bulletin proclaims: “Over next 10 years, Central Oregon expected to see strong job growth … Economists say it will be fastest rate in the state.”

“State economists estimate that 11,000 new jobs will spring up in Central Oregon by 2018, while the state as a whole will see an increase of about 163,000 total jobs,” the story begins. “Job growth in Central Oregon’s three counties — Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook — is expected to rise the fastest in the state, increasing from 2008 staffing numbers by 14 percent, to 92,340 jobs. That’s compared with statewide growth estimated at about 9 percent.”

What’s the reasoning behind this rosy forecast?

“Over the last 10 years, Central Oregon has grown tons faster than the state,” according to Carolyn Eagan, Central Oregon’s regional economist. (“Tons faster” – that sounds real scientific, doesn’t it?)

“There was nothing to me that would indicate that wouldn’t happen after the recession,” Eagan continued.

In other words: Central Oregon had rapid job growth in the previous 10 years; therefore it will have rapid job growth in the next 10 years. Q.E.D.

Eagan says she doesn’t see any reason to think the next 10 years won’t be like the last boom period. I’m not an economist, but I think I can glimpse one: Virtually all of the region’s past job growth was driven by the real estate bubble, and it’s delusional to think another such bubble is going to inflate here within the next 10 years – if ever.

Nor should we want it to. The problem with bubbles is they burst. And when they do, it’s a disaster. People lose their jobs, their homes, their investments.

Meanwhile the city, which has become dependent on an ever-increasing revenue stream from rampant growth, finds itself without money to pay for the schools, police, firefighters, sewers, roads and other things that new development requires.

Yet the same characters who led the cheering for the previous bubble are out there shaking their pom-poms for a new one. Less than a week ago, for example, The Bulletin was trumpeting the news that Bend’s inventory of unsold houses had “plummeted.”

We could take the bubble and bust as an opportunity to re-examine our way of managing growth and try to create a pattern of steady, sustainable development instead of repeating the boom-and-bust cycle endlessly.

But my bet is we’ll just go on digging more holes.

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