Promoting ongoing efforts to secure more water for local agriculture will be one of several areas of focus for Hermiston’s new city manager.

Byron Smith, who began in the position about a month ago, discussed his initial directives during a work session with the Hermiston City Council last week.

When being interviewed for the position this summer, Smith asked council members what they wanted from a city manager. From their responses, he compiled a list that included collaborative communication, maintaining financial stability, increasing livability, supporting the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center, promoting economic development and lobbying for more water for agriculture, he said.

BRIDGING THE EAST-WEST DIVIDE

At the work session, Smith said he has been studying up on water issues, as council members have stressed to him the importance of water.

“One of the specific comments was, ‘Water is king,’ ” he said.

Councilman John Kirwan said western Oregon residents do not seem to recognize the importance of water for the state’s economy.

“We happen to be in one of the only places that has the ability to expand farm ground,” he said. We’re not losing farm ground, but we’re missing one thing to do that, and that’s water from the Columbia River. ... We need to spend more time on that side of the state lobbying for what we need for this side of the state.”

Councilman Rod Hardin agreed.

“In western Oregon, they can keep from watering their lawns all summer long, but if we did this here, we wouldn’t have grass that would even be alive,” he said. “It’s just those kinds of concepts that I think they just don’t realize.”

Mayor Dave Drotzmann said the city should continue to support efforts by the Northeast Oregon Water Association, a non-profit corporation formed last year that is attempting to improve regional water supplies through efforts including securing more water from the Columbia River. He said NOWA has been representing the city’s interest — and that of the area collectively — by communicating to state leaders the importance of water to the region.

“The city and county and the ports and our local farmers have stepped forward to help sponsor that, and I think, in my opinion, we need to continue that support,” he said. “We’re too small of a voice by ourselves out here, so we’ve got to figure out ways that we can share and collaborate with others to make sure that we’re heard louder. It’s the single biggest thing, I think, as a community, we can do to help economic development in our region.”

Smith said Monday he has met with NOWA representatives a couple times and has another meeting scheduled.

“Our plans are to continue working with NOWA and their efforts,” he said. “They seem to be making some progress in some of their work with the state. I think it has a lot of good potential.”

He said NOWA is attempting to obtain permits to provide more agricultural water to the area and hopes to have some tangible results by the end of the year.

“The things that NOWA is proposing would basically allow for more agriculture to take place, more production, which would bring more jobs, potentially more processing facilities,” Smith said. “They are working with the state on how the permits could work and those kinds of things. ... I think we would be looking at ways we could assist them in lobbying or working with any of the state agencies.”

GROWING OTHER BUSINESS

While increasing the agricultural water supply would directly increase jobs and the local economy, Smith is also pursuing other economic development options.

Kirwan said last week transportation is a key industry in the area, and he suggested the city promote efforts to facilitate offering more technical degrees at Hermiston’s Eastern Oregon Higher Education Center. He also pointed out that five out of 10 jobs are not in the agricultural sector.

“We can always hope for more water, and that’s the goal, but we can also focus on economic development and job creation in the other sectors,” he said.

Drotzmann agreed and said diversifying the economy is a safeguard against local economic repercussions from a bad agricultural year.

“Obviously, agriculture is huge in our region. That just happens to be where we live,” he said. “Diversification is always part of that balance that you have when you’re talking about economic development. ... It doesn’t just have to be ag-based or transportation-based.”

Smith said Monday he is already working on attracting new businesses to Hermiston.

“We’re continuing to work with the state on (business) prospects that are looking for sites,” he said. “We’ve also been doing a little bit of our own marketing, contacting some businesses to let them know that we’re out here and that we could be a good place for them to locate.”

THE FUTURE

Smith said he is also working on the other areas from the list he compiled while being interviewed for the job.

He said he has met with officials from Stanfield, Echo and Umatilla, as well as some of the Umatilla County commissioners, to foster collaborative communication.

He said experience with revitalization projects he gained at his previous city manager position in Iowa would will aid him in Hermiston. He said city staff members have had discussions about what they could with internally.

Smith said last week’s work session was helpful.

“It was good to get the whole council, to get a flavor from all of them, where their priorities are and what we can do to move forward,” he said.

Smith said he would like to set goals and create longer-term strategic plans with the City Council during the first part of next year.

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