Building A Sustainable Local Economy: First Thoughts

Part of Ecotecture’s eco-nomics discussion is a series of reports on the ongoing meetings and activities of the Sustainable Economy Discussion Group (SEDG) of Corvallis, Oregon. The group began meeting in the fall of 2011, and Ecotecture’s first SEDG article covers the December, 2011 meeting. 

Although the purpose of SEDG is to explore issues in sustainable economics, SEDG’s members are not professional economists. They are ordinary citizens who bring a variety of perspectives to economic issues. SEDG is thus a “peer learning group” focused on macroeconomics and local economic vitality and sustainability.

Learn more about SEDG and  join our conversations by posting comments on our articles or sending us guest blogs about your community’s economic discussions or initiatives.


Notes: Corvallis, Oregon is a college town (home to Oregon State University [OSU]) with a population of about 55,000, including 22,000 students and 33,000 townsfolk. Corvallis’s economy, like that of most American towns, has declined since its peak in the pre-2008 era.

Corvallis is situated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, an agricultural area similar to California’s highly productive Central Valley. Yet for various reasons — lack of sufficient population to consume the local agricultural products, the relative price paid for products on the international market and so on — much of the valley’s products are sold outside of the area or abroad.

For example, many local farms produce grass seed (for lawns and golf courses) which is sold worldwide. Meanwhile, much of the food consumed in Corvallis, like that most of the rest of the country, is shipped in from other states and countries. That said, Corvallis does have a thriving, year-round farmer’s market and several restaurants that feature locally-supplied, organic food to the extent possible.

Strengthening and closing local food loops is just one aspect of creating a viable local economy discussed in the SEDG meetings.

(These notes are an edited version of the SEDG monthly meeting minutes sent to the membership.  SEDG members quoted or mentioned in these notes are usually identified by initial only to protect their privacy. Some members prefer to have their full name published.)

SEDG Meeting Notes #2 — January, 2012: — Main Topic: “Building a Sustainable Local Economy.”


About one year ago, The Corvallis city government empowered a citizens’ advisory group to write an economic development proposal for Corvallis. Called the Corvallis Economic Development Commission (CEDC) ,the group was made up mostly of citizens from the business community and one City Council member who was a former OSU business school professor.

In January, the CEDC came up with a plan to revive the city’s flagging economy. The plan calls for attracting more high-tech businesses to Corvallis, based in part on the presence of the University which emphasizes technical studies. Various incentives such as economic development loans and special zoning rules to facilitate building were proposed as ways of attracting businesses.

The Plan was adopted by the City Council, albeit over the objections of three Council members, including Mike Beilstein who participates in some SEDG meetings. Beilstein wrote and alternative plan that proposed an emphasis on creating more housing in Corvallis, rather than trying to attract more businesses.

Beilstein had also said, in a previous Council meeting in which the chairwoman of the CEDC Elisabeth French presented the commission’s plan to the Council, that he didn’t think that growth, per se, should necessarily be a goal of economic development. French disagreed with him, setting up a growth/anti-growth discussion that I proposed the SEDG take up.

As noted in the original article in this series, SEDG “grew out of an earlier discussion group based on the study of the book “Prosperity Without Growth” by Tim Jackson.” It is fair to characterize SEDG as being opposed to the unlimited-economic-growth-on-a -finite-planet paradigm that informs our macroeconomy. One of the groups missions is to explore how an economy can sustain itself without perpetual growth.

Before the January meeting, I sent a memo to the group proposing that we draft a green, sustainable alternative to the CEDC’s economic development plan:

“Initially, we want to respond to the proposals of the recently completed report by the City of Corvallis’s Economic Development Commission. The report apparently recommends the predictable pro-growth ideas incorporated in many such reports — attracting outside capital, creating enterprise zones and on — and makes little reference to green or sustainable development or building on our local resources. Our group can offer an alternative.”

In the January meeting, the SEDG decided that researching, writing and promoting a sustainable economic development proposal for Corvallis would be an appropriate activity for our group. The objective would be to draft a plan for moving  a local, steady-state economy. The plan would be based on reliance on local physical and human resources, and closing the production/waste loops in the local material economy. The plan would address strengthening community resilience in a an era of  diminishing resources and a slumping globalized economy.

Local Economy Brainstorm Session

A.L, a new SEDG participant, proposed that the community of Corvallis, perhaps working with OSU, create a “call center” for dispensing information. The idea is that one local product we have as a center of intellectual activity (college town) is plenty of  information, which is, of course, 95 percent or more demateralized, that is, can be bundled and transported at very little expense to the environment.

So the call center [or digital data dispensary] would be a way to trade “goods” for money without having to ramp up our physical manufacturing or agricultural base with the concomitant expenditure of energy or capital. One area of local expertise is technology of all types, including agricultural knowledge. While the “call center” would be a high-tech business, it would be a locally grown business dependent on local capital that directs a money flow toward, rather than away from the town.

Another member, A.K, came up with the idea of a voluntary transportation tax. Everyone who used gas would charge him or herself a small tax per gallon. That money would be pooled and used for some good purpose — to provide alternative transportation, for example.

Food and Sustainability Discussion: (This is in the context of discussing making Corvallis and its environs more sustainable by growing and consuming more of it own food.)

• A.L. pointed out that in 1860 agriculture was 60 percent of US GDP. He was also concerned that we’re running out of phosphate for our local agricultural system, although the group has not verified this.

(Editor’s comment: Perhaps a moderate reduction in technological reliance in the agricultural sector could lead to more hands-on employment there. This is probably especially true for medium sized, mostly organic farms.)

• Someone pointed out that OSU can’t buy food locally, but this was corrected. Apparently the dormitory food services have purchasing discretion, but might be constrained to buy the cheapest food, which is unlikely to be local or organic. This bears some looking into.

• The “First Alternative Coop” — a local, member owned, organic grocery with two stores in Corvallis, has published an analysis of local vs. regional and long distance food supplies. SEDG should refer to that study rather than attempting to do its own research. There is a good chance that a lot of the information needed to develop a sustainable economic plan for Corvallis and environs already exists, and it would behove our small group to look for that data rather than try to come up with its own.

• It was pointed out that we need more information on how our local and regional agricultural system works, so we can propose ways to make it more sustainable.

• Someone suggested that we explore ways to reduce fossil fuel use in our community. This is in part a way to develop local economic power, since a substantial part of the community’s money is spent on fossil fuels imported from elsewhere. Bicycle and public transportation ideas were discussed. That discussion is ongoing and will appear in subsequent posts on Ecotecture.

(Editor’s Comment: At an earlier meeting, a SEDG participant asked a broader questions: What can we do to reduce our dependency on large, international corporations?)

Relevant Historical Note

• Someone raised a point about attracting outside business and capital. Some years ago, the City of Corvallis offered land and zoning incentives for Hewlett Packard Corporation (HP) to build an R&D campus here. For a while, the HP facility was one of the major employers in town, paying good salaries to high-tech workers. Then HP, headquartered elsewhere, moved toward a globalized economic model; after which it fell on hard times. One result of these changes in policy and the wider problems of the company is that it drastically reduced its Corvallis staff, even to the point of closing some of the buildings on its campus. This has hurt the overall economic health of the town.

The sudden reduction of HPs staff was discussed as an object lesson in relying on outside capital to fuel a local economy — better that a local economy should be built on local resources.


Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, but our commission does not raise your price by one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson
The End of Growth, Richard Heinberg
Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Herman Daly
Steady State Economics, Herman Daly
Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Meadows, Randers and Meadows
Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, Stiglitz, Sen and Fatoussi
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, Peter Victor 

Related posts on Ecotecture:

Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems 

Can Gross National Happiness Lead to An Economic Revival? 

Visualizing a Sustainable Economy: How Much Is Enough? 

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

One Response to “Building A Sustainable Local Economy: First Thoughts”

  1. Jack Compere Says:

    This might be judged off-topic, I imagine, but I’d like to mention something that’s occurred to me lately — when you adjust to the reality of GW you look at your surroundings with new eyes, and with this in mind plus the notion that “sustainability” includes continuing to live without catastrophe you might conclude that Corvallis will have a significant problem in the future. I’m referring to our “urban interface” with large forests, the drying out of the forests, and fire. This isn’t a Corvallis-only problem, of course – to my eyes Ashland, for example, is more significantly embedded with its forested areas. The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 came to within several blocks of our house in those hills, and it impressed us that, if the predominant winds hadn’t changed, Oakland itself would have been threatened. So this leads me to wonder if Corvallis or OSU has studied the notion of strategic fire breaks – the Witham Hills area looks like a natural path for fire into the urban area, and, if we include Philomath, large areas of that city interface with forest. I’m aware that It’s possible that there is no practical strategy to mitigate such an event, but thought I’d put the issue out there – thanks for your time.

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