Applying the 4 Rs

(This guest column was originally published in The Chronicle)

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic and economic upheaval are a once-in-a-generation occurrence, or the sign of similar things to come remains to be seen. But the impacts throughout Columbia County mirror those around the globe. Many like to say “We’re all in this together…” which may be the case at some level. The truth is, “We’re all in this together differently…” may be more accurate, and “different” takes on a lot of meanings, especially in semi- to rural Oregon, which includes Columbia County and its communities.

The impacts of Stay at Home and the phased re-opening have hit us hard here, but we also are fortunate in many respects. We are close to a large metropolitan area but our public health and confirmed cases have been fractional compared to our urban neighbors.

That means we were among the first counties to begin phased re-opening, and so far, so good.

The 4 Rs

What will enable us to successfully re-open and stay open may all hinge on four Rs: Re-opening, Recovery, Resilience and Respect.

Re-opening is allowed and encouraged, and many eligible businesses and organizations have done just that – under physical distancing and health and safety guidelines. Yet other businesses are reluctant to re-open out of caution for employee and customer safety, and recognition that a second coronavirus spike or wave and re-closing could be economically catastrophic. We should respect their decisions, even while we work together to sustain local business and community Recovery and Resilience – with an abundance of caution.

Recovery necessitates change – in nearly every way we’re used to doing business. From restaurants to recreation, salons to saloons, manufacturing to mowing – we may never do business the same. At the very least, we need to adapt in order to be Resilient for the foreseeable future. There is no “new normal,” there’s only an “evolving normal” for which there is no roadmap, no playbook, no proven method except persistence, Resilience and adaptation.

We’re seeing that play out in innovative ways all across our county, from the north to the south. Chambers of Commerce have gone all-volunteer and online to stay connected and Keep It Local for small business. High school students began 3D printing face shields; an entire sector – the INSEAM Consortium of sewers and makers throughout the county has pivoted to make masks and other protective gear by hand or by the truckload. A local theatre provides a drive-by rather than drive-in experience.

Collaborations have taken on new looks, new focus, or morphed into yet new collaborations altogether. Our leaders and small businesses have influenced state policies and guidelines by advocating local interests. Local governments are working together to ensure federal and state money comes to local project investments. Community leaders are teamed with Emergency Management to help shape what Recovery will look like.

Public agencies are adapting and helping with direct, impactful changes. The Port of Columbia County will collect zero taxes for the next fiscal year, keeping money in taxpayer pockets. Cities are changing ordinances, turning sidewalks and streets into dining and business space. We’ve collaborated with the County Commission to stand up a small business grant fund and PPE program to provide money for businesses to operate — and affordable gear to operate safely – and stay open.

Portland’s backyard

As a wonderful region blessed with foothills, mountains, streams and trails nestled against the beautiful Columbia River, our county will take on more importance as Portland’s backyard, where people can come to recharge and play. But how we manage that, and ourselves, will be important too, in order to protect our own communities, generate outside economic infusion, and also maintain good public health and safety practices – and Respect for those who practice them — in order to keep our children and families, friends and neighbors, our businesses and organizations safe. And open.

CCET, or Columbia County Economic Team, is fortunate to be comprised of local governments and private businesses that drive countywide collaboration to retain and grow our businesses, and also recruit new companies that will feed a balanced economy. By necessity, CCET is right at ground-level during this pandemic: focusing on small business with our daily news and resource posts, smallbizhub website, collaborations throughout the county, accessing grant, material and loan funds, and more.

With our regional and state partners, we’re actively recruiting businesses that even now are looking to use this historic disruption to make even more change by expanding or relocating, positioning their company for the new and forever-altered future in a new place that we’re fortunate to already call home.

What’s next

We have quality, highly livable communities and ample opportunities to grow and flourish.

And though we have been fortunate to experience lesser public health impacts from COVID, it’s not easy; it’s really hard. It’s not over by a long way and things will likely never be the same. But we have begun to Re-open, Recover, benefit from our natural and self-made Resilience, and to Respect that the collective effort it takes to evolve for the future is based upon the qualities we already have right here.

Paul Vogel

Executive Director of Columbia Economic Team