Workers and land in short supply for future growth, SEDCOR’s outgoing president says

Chad Freeman, pictured in his office has one week left as the president of the county’s regional economic development arm. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Like the economy, Chad Freeman has to keep moving.

While starting a conversation about his time leading the Strategic Economic Development Corporation, also known as SEDCOR, the 43-year-old quipped that he tends to fidget just as he reached for a toy fidget spinner to whirl between his fingers. Then he continued.

“It’s been a great honor to work with companies as they have come out of (the recession),” he said. “Now we’re seeing a huge focus on ‘How do folks continue to grow?’”

That’s a question his successor will have to answer. Freeman is on the move — this time to become director of corporate development at Henningsen Cold Storage. His last day is Sept. 21.

For the past six years it’s been Freeman’s job to lead the agency and its six-person staff to bring more businesses and jobs to Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. He said it’s been a successful run, but there are market forces on the horizon that the region will have to face.

Workers, affordable housing and industrial lands are all becoming scarcer, he said. He added that he hoped more construction and job training will meet the need.

“Basically after ‘08, we quit building stuff for 5 or 10 years but we kept having families, kids kept getting born, and (recently) jobs kept getting created,” he said. “And now we’re trying to catch up and the market is slower to adjust.”

Since November 2012, when Freeman first started, the Salem area has added about 22,000 workers, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Marion and Polk counties have dropped from more than 9 percent to 3.9 percent in July.

Freeman said he’s hearing from businesses that have the capital to expand but struggl to find the space and manpower to do so.

“Now we’re onto another set of problems with a shortage of real estate and with around 3.9 percent unemployment. How do you, as an employer, find the talent to drive the next success?” he said.

When it comes to growing the workforce, Freeman pointed out that SEDCOR has been working with the Boys & Girls Club on jobs training and he lauded the recent expansion of courses offered at the Career and Technical Education Center in Salem.

“Going forward, as we’re bringing on the next member of the team here at SEDCOR, I think that groundwork is laid there and I think the workforce will be a key piece,” he said.

Likewise, he said he wanted to see more housing built to keep rents and home prices lower, calling it “absolutely a supply-side issue.” Workers need affordable housing just as businesses need places for workers to live, he said.

According to the Willamette Valley Multiple Listing Service, a group that tracks real estate trends in the region, the median home price rose from $263,500 to $289,000 in the last 12 months, a nearly 10 percent rise.

Workspace is another scarcity, however. Freeman said the area would do better with more office space to lease and having more “shovel-ready” land — with utility lines installed for construction to start quickly. Otherwise, Freeman said, companies have a hard time expanding.

“If a company needed to go from a 5,000-square-foot building to a 10,000-square-foot building they can’t find it because there’s just not that size of building in their market,” he said. “It’s similar to the housing crunch.”

That could be shifting. Freeman said he’s seen more spec construction, where builders make office buildings or light industrial warehouses that are ready for use. One example are industrial buildings from PacTrust at the Mill Creek Corporate Center.

“We’ve seen some other local investors doing that as well,” he said.

Ultimately, Freeman said it will be imperative to keep growing local businesses. He noted how, in 2013, SEDCOR helped Garmin, the GPS specialist, build a $14 million location that eventually hired 75 new workers.

That kind of track record builds on itself, he said, whether it’s giving current companies confidence or helps attract new businesses.

“It’s easier to shop for the new deal when you have a track record of success,” he said. “Then you can say we’ve been able to work with companies and help them grow. If you’re looking at coming into our community, we can help you grow, too, and here it is.”

In the future, Freeman also hoped to see more growth in Salem’s startup companies. He highlighted tech firm Rigado, which raised $15 million in investment this summer, as an example of nurturing small companies into big employers.

“When I came on board, at that point they were two engineers and this other guy with an idea and now they’re a pretty significant local employer,” he said. “Continue to replicate that, whether its cider companies or food companies… We’ve got to continue to build on that model.”

Have a story tip? Reach out to reporter Troy Brynelson: [email protected], 503-357-6190 or @TroyWB.