The loss of a Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Oregon plant and its 253 jobs is bringing both pain and optimism to Pendleton, Ore., and the Eastern Oregon rodeo.
Sales clerk Mary Bonifer ran her fingers over a tooled leather belt in the Hamley & Co. store downtown while fretting about the idled workers and their families. She’s also worried about the impact of so many lost jobs on the rest of her town, population 16,830, according to The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
“If there’s 250 employees and they each make $20,000, that’s a lot of money that’s leaving our economy,” said Bonifer, 54.
Still, a “Cowboy up!” attitude seems to pervade Pendleton, the home of the annual Pendleton Round-Up rodeo. A Keystone RV Inc. travel trailer plant continues to go strong and may absorb some Fleetwood employees, as may a Cayuse Technologies computer call center on the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation, Mayor Phil Houk said.
And there’s a chance that another manufacturer will move to the Fleetwood site. Within days of the company’s March 9 closure announcement, City Hall got at least 10 calls from distant corporations interested in Fleetwood’s two manufacturing buildings and 10 acres, said Tracy Bosen, economic development director for Pendleton.
“There are a lot of businesses that see these particular economic downturns as opportunities to relocate,” Bosen said. “Real estate is cheap, people are hungry for jobs and cities and communities are willing to negotiate.”
The companies interested in Fleetwood’s buildings, which are just less than 100,000 square feet each, include a wind turbine manufacturer, Bosen said, though he declined to name it. Eastern Oregon is fast becoming “wind turbine alley,” and the huge machines – many manufactured overseas – are going up by the hundreds around Pendleton, he said. “If there is a silver lining in this, a great facility has come open and it is available,” Bosen said.
Houk agreed, saying Pendleton is short on industrial space to attract outside companies. The Fleetwood site, he noted, is on flat ground that adjoins Interstate 84 and Union Pacific Railroad lines.
Fleetwood posted losses of $65.3 million in 2007 and $16.8 million last year. Even so, the closure announcement, in the midst of a national economic meltdown, was a shocker. It also left 162 workers jobless at a Fleetwood RV plant in La Grande, 50 miles to the east.
But Pendleton has assets besides the site: an internationally known rodeo and a get-back-on-your-horse attitude. The 99-year-old Pendleton Round-Up, a weeklong September extravaganza, brings 50,000 people to town and injects $20 million into the local economy.
Houk rides his horse in a dozen parades around the state each year to publicize the Round-Up. His mount tried to buck him off during one parade, but Houk is no stranger to being tossed. “So far, each time I’ve crashed I’ve been able to get back on the horse,” he said.
The same goes for the town. When the state decided to close a 73-year-old mental hospital in the early 1980s, eliminating a major employer, Pendleton got busy and ultimately persuaded the state to put a prison in the building.
The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution opened in 1985 and houses 1,600 inmates overseen by 425 employees, said Doug Carter, prison spokesman. “Those were also tough times,” Houk said. “Everybody pulled together.”
The town even won the prison jobs on its own terms: It insisted on an agreement that prohibits inmates from leaving prison grounds for odd jobs such as mowing lawns or planting trees. Townspeople didn’t want prisoners developing affection for their town and deciding to stay after their release, Houk said.