How Oregon Networks for Solutions

To address community-level priorities, the state has begun putting its agencies together with key public and private stakeholders. The approach has already produced some victories.

Here's an innovative idea: Pull all the key stakeholders together around a key community-level priority and solve the problem. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, via an executive order issued last December, created the infrastructure for this to happen, calling it the "Oregon Solutions Network." The goal, he says, "is to approach community and economic development by recognizing the unique needs of each region in the state," and to work at the local level to solve problems and get specific projects completed.

The state government divides Oregon into 11 regions, each of which has identified priorities that it wants to address. For example, the three-county North Central Region has identified seven priorities including the development of wastewater infrastructure, fiber-optic networks, industrial land and workforce training. Regional Solution Centers help community-level stakeholders in the region mobilize resources around each of their priorities.

The governor's office sponsored the creation, funded from existing budgets, of a series of Regional Solutions Centers and staffed each with small teams of employees from a range of state agencies. There are currently six regional solutions coordinators located in five full-time centers and one satellite office. Regional advisory committees are headed by a convener whose role is to serve as the catalyst for the region.

Five major state agencies are members of all six teams. The governor meets regularly with the heads of each of those agencies to review progress in each of the regions and, when needed, to do "barrier busting." Other agencies are included on an as-needed basis.

The solutions centers are located on university campuses and partner with them to tackle problems. A background paper says the centers' purpose is to provide "a neutral forum and a place for state agencies to work collaboratively with local governments, as well as civic and private interests, to help solve problems and seize opportunities." When solutions require joint actions that reach beyond the bounds of a region, the teams can call upon the resources of Oregon Solutions, the state's collaborative implementation program.

While the Regional Solution Centers have only been around for about a year, they are already tallying a list of quick victories. "People get tremendous benefit from community-based projects," says Greg Wolf, who is Gov. Kitzhaber's staff champion for the initiative. Here are some examples:

Industrial land development in eastern Oregon: One regional Solutions Center helped a small city, Arlington, acquire and rezone a 300-acre site and convert it to industrial use, aiming to create as many as 350 new jobs. This required a change to the statewide land use policy and plan, which typically takes 18 months, but it was done in seven weeks by using the integrated approach via the solutions center.

Creating a biomass campus: Wallowa County purchased an abandoned lumber mill, and the Regional Solutions Center created an integrated package of grants, loans, permits and technical assistance to help the county create a new bio-mass campus where various small businesses could co-locate. The campus hosts businesses that will create firewood, compressed fuel pellets, fenceposts and a 300-kilowatt co-generation facility. It will create 14 new jobs and improve forest health.

Retaining a trucking company: A central Oregon trucking company was considering consolidating its operations in another state, but the Solutions team found a Redmond, Ore., site for it. The Department of Transportation and the governor's office partnered with the city of Redmond to use an "immediate opportunity grant" to create an acceleration lane to link the new site to a nearby interstate highway. The company stayed, retaining 218 jobs.

Supporting a small-business start-up: Oregon's Business Development Department worked with their Regional Solutions Center team to support the creation of a small sign-recycling business by providing support for its business planning and logistics strategy. It also worked with the Oregon Transportation Department to help it become the company's first customer to buy the recycled signs.

Storm recovery and school rebuilding: After floods ravaged schools in the town of Vernonia, Oregon Solutions brought government agencies and community leaders together to locate, fund and rebuild new facilities on higher ground. The recovery of the Vernonia school system is a highly visible effort moving forward on several levels and engaging multiple agencies and initiatives.

So what might be the next step? "We would like to try to figure out how to get federal agencies on the ground, helping state and local governments," says Wolf, the governor's staffer on this initiative. "It would be a wonderful, ground-breaking thing if federal agencies would engage in our regional solutions centers."

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