“The economy in Corvallis is really unique to most communities in Oregon,” explains Benton County’s Economic Development Manager, Tom Nelson when asked about economic development in the area.
“There is a lot about innovation and you see a lot of business startups. I would say it’s booming right now and companies are looking for space to expand into. We assist with those expansions, as well as any issues to retain companies.” If companies have an issue, Nelson and Kate Porsche, the city’s new Economic Development Officer, step in to help alleviate those issues and keep companies thriving in Corvallis.
“Our main focus is working with trade sector businesses,” explained Nelson. A trade sector business is one that creates services, goods, or ideas that are consumed outside of the community while creating jobs inside the community. Selling goods outside of the community brings wealth into the community, and is a key to economic development. “That’s why we want to build that, so we can build the community,” Nelson said.
“One thing about Corvallis, there is this thing called leakage,” Nelson explained, “There are so many products that you cannot get here, so we have to go outside of the community instead of spending our money here.”
There are three main areas that Nelson and Porsche work in to develop Corvallis’ economy- innovation, entrepreneurship and startups, retention and expansion, and recruitment.
The city is a hotbed of innovation, and in a 2014 Kauffman Foundation Study of communities throughout nation, Corvallis is the number one startup community in Oregon, and number 10 nationally. Nelson cited two major reasons for this: Oregon State University and HP.
“Oregon State University has a lot of spinouts,” Nelson said. At OSU, professors and students are often discovering product ideas that can be commercialized. OSU Advantage Accelerator is a program that helps develop those ideas into successful businesses, with the goal to support local innovation and entrepreneurship.
Started in 2013, the program helps startups at any stage of their development. They work with OSU faculty, staff, and students, as well as the local community to develop their ideas and turn them into successful businesses. They do this by assisting in market exploration, product development and finding customers.
HP’s presence has also bolstered entrepreneurship in Corvallis, but not how one would typically expect. “Through the years HP adopted a new model of doing business where a lot of their work is done offshore, so they didn’t have the need of all the employees that they used to have here,” Nelson said, “But with that downsizing a lot of those people stayed in the community, and they are very smart people, and they started businesses. And so, we see a lot of those companies that have started here and grown here are actually a spin out of Hewlett Packard,” Nelson said.
“Another little-known fact, we are year over year rated as the top 5 smartest communities in the nation and the top 5 patents per capita. Obviously, people think about Oregon State again, because there is a lot of IP that comes out of OSU, but what most people don’t realize is that HP has more patents per year than Oregon State does,” Nelson explained.
“Put some of that together and it just makes for a very innovative community, very entrepreneurial community. What we try to do to assist with that, we support contracted staffing for the Willamette Innovators Network (WIN). [They] are a network of entrepreneurs. Not your mainstreet businesses, but small businesses that scale fairly easily and grow. We find a lot of them are tech oriented, but not all of them.”
“So, we have pub talks that we help promote, which provides an opportunity for people to come together and network that are of a like mind. Then also in November we help promote and sponsor the WIN expo. That is going to be a fairly large event, where we are able to showcase some of the cool companies in Corvallis. I think last year we had about 500 in attendance,” Nelson said.
With all this innovation, is there a certain saturation point where it is hard to start a business in Corvallis? “No, I think there is just so much happening here, and they are so unique in the types of businesses they are, our only problem is keeping them here, because as they grow they have certain building and infrastructure needs that we haven’t been able to provide so far.”
“If there is any sticky point where we could do better it would be to get investors to invest in more space to grow these businesses,” Nelson explained, “Flex space is something we’ve seen a demand for, maybe 25,000 square feet of shop space and 500 square feet of office space, buildings like that are just hard to come by.”
Porsche, who had been in her position only a couple of days when we spoke, will be focusing on business retention and expansion. Porsche was the Economic Development and Urban Renewal Director for the City of Albany before joining Nelson’s team. Nelson explained her trajectory in her new role as focusing on the retention and expansion piece of economic development in Benton County. “She will be building relationships with existing businesses in Benton County, talking to them about any needs they may have in expanding their business. Maybe they have some financing needs, we have sources that we can point them towards for that. Maybe it’s marketing assistance.”
Many of the businesses that are in Corvallis are not ones that you see when you’re driving down the street, and because they are in the traded sector they aren’t advertising locally. These types of businesses often go under the radar, so when they are having issues Nelson and Porsche are unaware. “We don’t even know they’re there unless we get connected to them,” Nelson explained. So, the economic development office, through their expansion and retention visits, has built a database of existing companies in Benton County that continues to grow. This list is available on their website, yescorvallis.org.
“We identify barriers sometimes. A company wants to expand, and they say ‘Oh, I’ve heard it’s tough to expand in Corvallis, I’m going to go someplace else.’ Hopefully we’ve been successful so far in helping companies stay in Corvallis and grow by providing them information assistance.”
“One that is a big story is Two Towns Cider. So, we went to see Two Towns back in 2013 and asked them about their growth trajectory and what their plans were. They said ‘Well, we want to expand but we think we might be moving to Eugene.’”
The economic development office worked with Two Towns Ciderhouse to find them the space they needed to expand. “We helped them find property to expand into. They are now in their fourth expansion. They have become the number one craft cidery business in the state. To give you an idea of what number one means, they produced 400,000 gallons of cider last year, and number two produced 200,000 gallons.” Because Nelson and his team were able to intervene early on, they were able to retain their business. “They are the number 8th largest craft cidery in the nation, and we’re growing them right here in Corvallis.”
Regarding recruitment, Nelson emphasized statewide partnerships that help his office bring business to Benton County. “We have a pretty tight network of economic development professionals around the state, and we have a big partnership with Business Oregon, which is the state’s economic development office. So, we get leads through them, companies that are looking for a west coast presence, or just to be in Oregon.”
Nelson described himself and his team as resource people. “We know where money is, we know where marketing assistance is, we know where property is. We know where business assistance is. We have partners that we collaborate with all over the state, regionally and locally as well.”
Porsche described their office’s role as that of a shepherd, helping businesses in whatever they need. “With large projects that come in or with expansions we can help be this point of contact and help shepard them through all of the various processes. Not just city, but state as well.”
While economic development is not always straightforward, Nelson and Porsche have a clear plan of attack. Corvallis is a city of innovators, and with OSU’s presence, that spirit of innovation is here to stay.
If you want to learn more, visit their new website, yescorvallis.org.
By Ashley Rammelsberg