Oregon’s (Sort of) Company Towns

by Erik Knoder

August 15, 2019

Oregon doesn’t really have traditional company towns anymore, but it does have seven cities with all their jobs provided by four or fewer employers. Today’s towns and cities are usually larger than the original company towns and have many businesses, but there are some that have only a few employers and some that have surprisingly concentrated economies even if they are larger.

Traditional company towns were founded by single companies, often in timber, fishing, or mining. And the company would own all the homes and often run a company store. Gilchrist was the last lumber company town in the state. Gilchrist still bills itself as the model company town and has a website celebrating its history. The company homes were sold to residents in 1997. Many others, such as Valsetz in Polk County, were abandoned when old-growth timber ran out and their mills closed. A few company towns, such as Brookings – founded by the Brookings Lumber and Box Company in 1908, diversified and prospered and exist today as regular cities.

Oregon had 237 cities in 2017 with at least one employer. The average share of employment held by the four largest employers in these 237 cities was 45 percent. The median (middle) city had 39 percent of its employment held by its four largest employers. These numbers may seem surprisingly large.  However, just as with business size, Oregon has many small cities and fewer medium and large cities. (The median-sized city had a population of just 1,950 in 2018.) And small cities tend to have more concentrated employment.

A common way to measure concentration is to calculate the impact (in this case employment) generated by the four largest firms. The cities were then ranked in decreasing concentration from 1 through 237, and selected cities were included in this table. The employment data in this article include only jobs covered by unemployment insurance, generally payroll jobs. The data exclude self-employment, and certain jobs in agriculture, commercial fishing, student workers, real estate brokers, and a few other select occupations.
Seven small cities – Antelope, Idanha, Mitchell, Shaniko, Summerville, Unity, and Westfir – had 100 percent of their payroll employment in four or fewer employers. These cities all have populations of fewer than 300 and not many employers at all, so it’s not too surprising that their employment is so concentrated. Other cities in the top ranks of employment concentration are also generally pretty small; Dayville, Ukiah, Seneca, and Barlow all have more than 90 percent of their employment in just four employers, and they all provide a good excuse to get out your Oregon atlas to find out just where they are! Weston (Umatilla County) is the first real exception to the rule of small size alone accounting for a high concentration of employment. Weston had a population of 685 in 2018 and 12 employers with 497 employees total in 2017, and one of those employers was pretty large for a rural area. Ninety-six percent of Weston’s employment was concentrated in the four largest employers.

As cities become larger, employment concentration typically declines, but none of the cities with 70 percent or more of their employment in the four largest employers had city-wide employment of more than 500. Boardman was the only city with more than 1,000 jobs that had more than 60 percent of its employment concentrated in the four largest employers. City-wide employment in Boardman was 2,072 in 2017 and 66 percent of the jobs were with the four largest employers. The Boardman Chamber of Commerce’s website lists Lamb-Weston, a potato processor, as the city’s largest employer.

The next major jump in city size with respect to employment concentration occurs in Corvallis, home to Oregon State University. Corvallis has the highest employment concentration of any city in a metro area in Oregon (metro areas include the entire county). Corvallis had 31,406 payroll jobs in 2017 and 10,182 (32%) of them were generated by the four largest employers. Oregon State University alone provided about 6,300 jobs covered by unemployment insurance that year. It also provided nearly 6,700 jobs to students during the school year, but these jobs are not covered by unemployment insurance and they are excluded from the employment concentration calculations. Including them would increase the employment concentration for Corvallis to about 42 percent.

Other metro areas generally have much lower employment concentration. Oregon City, which is part of the Portland metro area, had 27 percent of its 15,837 jobs with the four largest employers. After Corvallis, Albany was the second most concentrated principal city in a metro area. It had 14 percent of its 21,927 jobs in the four largest employers. The least concentrated, or most diversified, economy? That title went to Portland, of course. The Rose City had just 6 percent of its 442,111 payroll jobs generated by its four largest employers.


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