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About a decade ago, if we remember this correctly, we attended a mid-valley economic gathering with elected officials and business leaders from throughout the region. The discussion on that sunny afternoon revolved around the notion of thinking about the mid-valley's economy in regional terms, and not just as countywide entities.

At one point in the proceedings, an elected official raised a question: What is a regional economy? What does it even look like?

A decade later, we have a somewhat greater understanding that, yes, what affects Linn County economically may well have a ripple effect in Benton County and beyond. But we're still not at the point where most of us would be able to offer a full answer to either of those questions.

Instead, the answer comes in bits and pieces, and another piece recently fell into place in the mid-valley: A coalition of eight communities in Linn and Benton counties recently united to hire a full-time "venture catalyst." The person hired for that position will be charged with identifying and finding financial support for budding entrepreneurs in the mid-valley.

The communities were united in this cause by the Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network, a nonprofit organization serving Linn, Benton, Lane and Lincoln counties that was funded by the Legislature to advance the formation of startup companies in the region.

This project is being funded by a $70,000 competitive grant from Business Oregon, which is being matched by $20,000 from the communities involved — Brownsville, Halsey, Lebanon, Harrisburg and Sweet Home in Linn County and Monroe, Adair Village and Philomath in Benton County. Lebanon is the largest community in the group; Monroe, with just 636 souls, is the smallest. 

The common denominator, though, is that these aren't communities with lots of resources to devote to economic development. And this position will be focused on working to identify budding entrepreneurs in the communities and connecting them with financial and other support. 

It's a good idea: Entrepreneurs with any kind of experience will be familiar with cases in which a promising business stumbled at the start because of a lack of resources.

We especially like that the competitive grant submitted to Business Oregon was submitted on behalf of eight separate communities, representing (for the most part) some of the smaller communities in the mid-valley. In some cases, these are areas that have not fully participated in the state's economic recovery. Anything that can be done to help business startups in these smaller communities can make a big difference.

That's part of what caught the eye of the grant reviewers at Business Oregon: Gary Marks, the Lebanon city administrator, said that the original grant application was for $50,000, but Business Oregon awarded $70,000. Said Marks: "The state was impressed with our application and said they had never seen cities come together like this. They really want us to succeed."

Marks made another excellent point: Sometimes we tend to think of economic development as recruiting existing businesses into our communities. While that's important, it's almost always a long shot, considering how competitive these recruitment battles can get. It's just as important (maybe more so) to help local residents develop the ideas they might have for new ventures.

And, Marks noted, an economy with dozens of smaller businesses is much less susceptible to economic shocks than one that relies on just one big business that might shut down or move.

We'll be closely watching this venture as it plays out, and we're curious in particular to learn how the person hired for the job will juggle the various communities. But if this pays off the way it could, it could be a boon for the entire mid-valley — and another part of the answer to what we mean when we talk about a regional economy. (mm)

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