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Linking Employment Clusters and Ridesharing Options: Mid-Columbia Economic Development District

Linking Employment Clusters and Ridesharing Options: Mid-Columbia Economic Development District

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This case study initially appeared in the NADO Research Foundation 2012 report Aligning Strategies to Maximize Impact: Case Studies on Transportation and Economic Development and was also a presentation given at the 2011 RPO America Peer Symposium during the National Rural Transportation Conference in Washington, DC.

The Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD) joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Stronger Economies Together program in 2012 to increase ongoing communication and collaboration as it seeks input for its CEDS. According to MCEDD Executive Director Amanda Hoey, the program’s value is in “continual conversation with counties, cities, ports, chambers of commerce, and private industry.” Monthly meetings across the region create more engagement between communities and generate new ideas.

The high level of collaboration that contributes to the CEDS is also evident in two of MCEDD’s initiatives that link economic development to transportation issues across the largely rural region. The Rural Cluster Development program identifies and promotes industry clusters, supporting business opportunities and linkages. MCEDD’s mobility programs encourage ridesharing and vanpooling by helping employers increase their employees’ transportation choices. Although MCEDD administers these two programs separately, there are important connections between them: successful cluster development that brings more employers closer together facilitates ridesharing and the reduction of single occupancy vehicle use.

Rural Cluster Development

MCEDD defines industry clusters as “groups of companies and/or services and all of the public and private entities on which they depend. These relationships create efficiency and competitiveness.” EDA provided the primary funding for the initiative, with support from other local and private sources. The CEDS includes cluster strategies, and USDA Rural Enterprise Grants funded many of the marketing projects.

To establish clusters, in 2004 MCEDD analyzed data provided by regional employment offices to identify growing sectors and those already significant in size. The process was also an opportunity to “convene local groups to talk about what would be the value in forming a cluster,” says Hoey. A cluster must have a “private industry champion” to be included in MCEDD’s program. For example, while outdoor ecotourism was growing at the time of the analysis, its medium size and lack of private leadership to help it develop prevented it from receiving official designation and resources.

MCEDD and industry leaders identified five clusters: high tech, value-added agriculture (originally limited to wine), arts and culture, healthcare, and renewable energy. MCEDD staff worked with each cluster to develop five-year strategic work plans to advance associations and their member businesses. Many of the organizations that began with MCEDD support now operate independently. After completing one strategic planning cycle, the five clusters are currently engaged in their second round of planning. Recent cluster projects included a bi-state winegrowers map and support to establish the Gorge Artists Open Studios, an annual event that provides business training for artists.

The high tech cluster was one of the first established and has remained a strong presence in the region. The Gorge Tech Alliance, which now has over 100 members, was a driver in identifying technology as a cluster at the beginning of the initiative and remains an important forum for connecting companies.

MCEDD still provides resources to the Alliance with staffing, networking, education, meetings, and workforce development programs. The new five-year work plan carries over some long-term items from the initial plan, such as creating research and development facilities.

Linking Employment Centers and Clusters

As MCEDD’s mobility manager, Scott Turnoy’s goal is to promote an efficient transportation system across the five counties. “As a rural region we’re somewhat spread out, which creates significant transportation needs,” he says. While the movement of goods is an important component of the system, his focus is on moving people, particularly employees. Ridesharing initiatives increase access between the workforce and worksites by partnering with employers and coordinating public transit providers.

A vanpooling feasibility study completed in June 2011 found a significant potential for vanpooling in the region for a limited percentage of commuters. Results of an employer survey, completed with assistance from the University of Oregon Economic Development Center (an EDA-designated University Center), show a range of attitudes about vanpooling and willingness to support it. To reach his target audience for the initiative, Turnoy works directly with employers to learn about their unique needs and show where they might benefit from coordination with other sites.

The feasibility study recommended starting outreach efforts with the largest clusters of employers because they have more employees travelling to similar locations. The existing industry clusters were an obvious starting point for Turnoy, who says that healthcare and technology employers have been the most receptive to MCEDD’s efforts. For example, Turnoy arranged a meeting between Insitu, an unmanned aircraft provider, and CenturyLink, a telecommunications company, to encourage vanpooling at a common facility in Hood River, Oregon.

Maya Hooper, Insitu’s senior sustainability coordinator, considers MCEDD a great resource for mobility issues and creating contacts with vanpool providers. Although sharing resources with other employers at the Hood River facility was not feasible for logistical reasons such as work schedules, Insitu promotes its own commuting programs. Approximately 100 of the company’s 800 employees in the region take advantage of carpool incentives, and an internal ridesharing board connects employees with similar travel needs.

Although formal clusters may facilitate networking and communication, ridesharing is increasingly important for other industries in the region. For example, Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, which has been a leader in providing transportation for its employees (up to 1,000 in the winter season) and visitors, is working with MCEDD to explore new ridesharing tools. According to Executive Director, Resort Operations Woody Hoye, mobility programs are essential for supporting his industry: “The demand for our recreational facilities is increasing every year. Our resources, such as permit areas and traffic infrastructure, are finite, so we need to look at alternative means of transportation.” The resort collaborates with other ski areas to brainstorm and share ideas of how to accommodate more visitors and promote recreational opportunities in the region.


In addition to partnering with the region’s employers, coordinating public transportation is also an important way to promote mobility. The Gorge TransLink Alliance is a partnership among rural transit providers in the same five county area served by MCEDD. Each county maintains its own transit service and participates in ridesharing programs. Drive Less Connect in Oregon and Rideshare Online in Washington are online tools for arranging trips, allowing employees and others to better connect with each other. The two websites share a user database and the program is currently available to users in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Sustaining Transportation and Investment

MCEDD’s Rural Cluster Development and ridesharing initiatives are mutually supportive and contribute to a resilient economy and transportation network. The cluster initiative encourages regional diversification and focuses on Mid-Columbia’s existing competitive advantages. Mobility programs promote economic development by providing better access to employment opportunities for the region’s workforce of 44,000.

These programs are important for the retention of key industries, explains Hoey, as “many of the large employers have the capacity to go elsewhere.” Ridesharing not only builds off of the existing assets identified in the cluster analysis, but connects them to make them stronger and enable their growth and development for a more sustainable region.

Takeaway #1: “Maintain a primary point of contact”

In partnering with employers, Turnoy tries to establish constant contact with a staff member at each site, often one involved with sustainability or employee benefits. He has found that employers are generally more willing to put out the message to their staff if they have an ongoing relationship. The inverse is also true: Hoey finds it helpful to maintain “a primary point of contact [at MCEDD] for the region to ensure continuity and promote the program using different avenues.”

Takeaway #2: “Increase communication”

The cluster and mobility programs, as well as the collaborative CEDS process, reflect Turnoy’s belief that “the better communication you can establish among actors in the region, the more success you’ll have.” Engagement and partnerships are essential for working together in areas with smaller populations, says Turnoy, especially for generating new ideas.

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This case study was researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow Kate Humphrey under the direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel and is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-06-H-0029 through the NADO Research Foundation’s Center for Transportation Advancement and Regional Development (  Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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