Experts look for silver lining in Depot closure

HERMISTON -- Closing the Umatilla Chemical Depot will have a widespread negative impact on the local economy but there is reason for hope, experts say.

The closure will take a $40 million to $50 million chunk out of the economy, said Bruce Sorte, an Oregon State University community economist, at a forum Wednesday night in Hermiston. That's based on the loss of 650 jobs.

Most depot employees make about $60,000 annually, he said, but the loss of one job likely will affect the economy by a factor of 1 1/2, making the economic impact of each job worth about $80,000.

The closure will affect job growth and the prosperity of local businesses, Sorte said, and he expects the Hermiston-area population to flatten for about five years.

"This is going to be a really big hit to the community," he said.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot is scheduled to destroy its last container of nerve agent in November, after which the Army and its contractors will begin laying off employees. The first round of layoffs will be in January, said depot commander Lt. Col. Kris Perkins.

Sorte said the solution is to reach out to the recently unemployed and help them find jobs here, or help make their families feel like welcome and valuable members of the community.

He suggested churches, service organizations and local businesses step up and offer to help. Have families over for dinner, he said, help them start their own businesses, and make their spouses' jobs, which act as anchors when a family member is unemployed, even more attractive.

"I know this sounds sort of goofy and touchy-feely, but that's what holds people," Sorte said.

Sorte was part of a panel of depot leaders at the Hermiston Conference Center. Perkins was also on the panel, along with County Commissioner Bill Hansell, chairman of the depot local reuse authority; Hal McCune, a representative of URS, the company that runs the depot incineration plant; and Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jim Stearns.

Stearns spoke of how the loss of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program will affect area emergency responders. The program poured millions of dollars into buildings, materials and education during its stay, he said, and will be missed.

Umatilla County Emergency Management will lose nine jobs, he said, and Morrow County will lose four, plus staff contracted through the InterMountain Education Service District. The program also will stop paying the bills at the buildings it built, such as the program office in Irrigon.

However, Stearns said, "Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is good news -- the agent is almost gone out there. That hazard is one less hazard for our communities to be concerned with."

And the Hermiston area is a resilient, growing community, said Kim Puzey, manager of the Port of Umatilla and member of the local reuse authority, the alliance of county, port and tribal representatives that has been planning the depot's future.

Puzey, from the audience, said the port has been busier the past few years than ever before, thanks to tax incentives that lure business looking to grow yet save money in a struggling economy.

Tuesday, he said, he signed a $1.8 million contract with a company called Rotschy Inc., to build a new road to the port's river shipping terminal.

Puzey said private companies throughout the area are expanding, and that Hermiston is in the midst of exciting growth -- its new schools and higher education center are examples.