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Lake County Successes Working Together

May 16, 2012 | Economic Vitality

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Lake County, in south-central Oregon on the California border, has been a long-time friend of RDI and was an early participant in RDI-led programs like the Ford Institute Leadership Program and the Connecting Oregon for Rural Entrepreneurship (CORE) collaborative. Lake County is a Great Basin, high desert land, historically dependent on logging and ranching for its economic base. Normally, the economic prospects for an isolated, resource-dependent county like Lake would be to experience a stagnant to slow decline as timber harvests diminished and technology slowly reduced labor requirements. On the contrary, Economist Dr. Richard Gardner of Bootstrap Solutions in Boise, Idaho found in his recent economic report, that while it is true that the county has clearly been impacted by the economy, there is a flurry of activity and a sense of optimism as the county embraces a strategy of alternative energy development.

Lake County’s Commitment to Alternative Energy
Lake County’s commitment to alternative energy was cemented in 2008 when community leaders in Lake County created a vision to “become Oregon’s most renewable energy county.” When community leaders began to focus on the potential for alternative energy projects, The Ford Family Foundation supplied financial support for the Lake County Resource Initiative, a nonprofit community organization aimed at sparking collaborations around alternative energy.

The Lake County Resource Initiative has provided consultation and education to move a number of renewable energy projects – small, medium, and large – forward. There are 22 existing alternative energy projects and at least six additional projects which have come into being due to the technical assistance provided by the Lake County Resource Initiative. These are a ground heat pump installed as part of the new library, a 75 kw solar electric project that will be built onto the new hospital in addition to its geothermal heat, a new log home with solar radiant hot water heating (Decker), a demonstration greenhouse heated with solar hot water at the Paisley school, a demonstration solar electric project, and a demonstration ground water heat pump for the exhibit building, both at the Lake County Fairgrounds.

Between the existing small alternative energy projects that have been built, the hospital/school geothermal loop now in progress, and the set of additional small projects estimated to be built in the next decade, there is a total of $13 million in net present value of energy savings that will be realized in Lake County. These are an economic benefit to the community that is directly comparable to the cost of investments made by The Ford Family Foundation in the Ford Institute Leadership Program and grants to Lake County Resource Initiative and infrastructure projects. A number of commercial-scale energy projects are at various stages of development and promise even larger benefits to come.

Lake County’s Commitment to Community
Yet, Lake County’s commitment to community started long before that. A major problem with evaluating community capacity-building projects is that most of the outputs are soft changes in behavior and increased levels of social capital, which are notoriously difficult to measure. Logic models for capacity-building suggest that more effective group leadership skills will ultimately lead to changes in measurable economic outcomes like job creation, median household income, or total assessed property values. While this may hold over the long term, the reality is that economic outcomes within a community can be swamped (at least in the short-term) by more immediate forces like structural changes in industries and regions, specifically, the effects of the Great Recession.

Luckily, Lake County was among the first group to participate in the Ford Institute Leadership Program and prior to that had participated in RDI’s first Leadership Training (Rural Futures Forum). When the Recession hit, people in Lake were already accustomed to pulling together.  People in Lake County continue to strive to strengthen their capacity with RDI and The Ford Institute at their side. Lake County also recently participated in the Pathways to Community Vitality Program, a second generation of Ford Institute sponsored services that are intended to build community-wide capacity to work together and get things done. Through the RDI-facilitated process, the community prioritized increasing community-wide communication, diversity, and engagement and building community leadership with an overall goal of increasing the number of people in the county who are informed and involved in making Lake County a vital community. If past performance is any indicator of future success, RDI is excited about how Lake County might leverage this most recent capacity building investment toward building even further economic vitality.

Investments in Capacity Result in BIG Steps Forward
Our conclusion is that Lake County’s tenacity paired with the Ford Institute Leadership Program and other capacity building investments created the capacity for Lake County to take several significant steps forward in improving its community infrastructure and with that gained the ability to sustain itself over time. The Ford Institute Leadership Program also helped build enough community consensus around a vision for the future to unleash creative energy. For example, Lake County class members created a community foundation to help fund community endeavors as a part of their class project which is still thriving today. 

Lake County is rapidly moving toward achieving its goal to be Oregon’s number one renewable energy county. It is leading the way for other counties, and Lake County Resource Initiative leadership is interested in sharing what it has learned with other Ford Institute Leadership Program communities. Jim Walls, the director of the Lake County Resource Initiative (RDI board member and graduate of the second Ford Institute Leadership Program class), recently presented a TEDx talk at Oregon State University [learn more] and noted that each county will find a different mix of resources, but they will always find some projects they can move forward now.

Walls also underlined, “There are many of us in Lake County who have participated in the Ford Institute Leadership classes and there is no doubt in my mind that the efforts of The Ford Family Foundation and RDI play a large role in the renewable energy success and the newly found Lake County Community Foundation currently endowed at $109,000 with another $50,000 currently in the works. Taking Institute classes is an investment in your community’s future. Taking charge of your future can result in immediate success. If you’re waiting for government it maybe a long wait.”

RDI believes you shouldn’t have to wait to build vital economies and that they are essential to the future of rural communities. Entrepreneurs like those in Lake County are the back bone of rural economies. That’s why RDI’s economic vitality programs focus on helping small businesses thrive, capitalizing on opportunities like those presented to Lake County in the form of alternative energy advancement, networking, skill building, and planning. In addition to supporting entrepreneurship, we also help communities develop economic development and rural tourism plans that reflect the needs and values of their community. To learn more, please contact Noelle Colby-Rotell, email: nrotell@rdiinc.org or phone: 208.954.9564.

Our conclusion is that Lake County’s tenacity paired with the Ford Institute Leadership Program and other capacity building investments created the capacity for Lake County to take several significant steps forward in improving its community infrastructure and with that gained the ability to sustain itself over time.

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Solar-powered house in Lake County that uses the grid as a back-up.
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Lake County straw bale house with ground source heat pump.