Reedsport Area: Western Douglas County, yet part of Coos County’s Labor Shed

by Annette Shelton-Tiderman

September 13, 2017

Rural, coastal southwestern Oregon. The words themselves bring visions of rugged landscapes, pockets of early-morning fog edging tree-lined riverbanks, and deep forests stretching from the tops of coastal mountains to cliff edges above ever-changing shorelines. The Reedsport Area, including the city of Reedsport and nearby communities of Winchester Bay and Gardiner, is Douglas County’s “window” on the Pacific Ocean.
The Reedsport Area, defined as Douglas County Census Tracts 100 and 200, covers 5,133 square miles, six square miles of which is water. There are numerous small lakes as well as several rivers, the largest of which is the Umpqua River and its tributary the Smith River. The Area is home to just over 5,600 people and accounts for 5 percent of Douglas County’s 110,400 residents and nearly 11 percent of the county’s total area. Economically, even though the Reedsport Area, including the Port of Umpqua, is the county’s connection with the Pacific Ocean, its labor shed looks south to neighboring Coos County rather than east to the rest of Douglas County.

Life Today in Douglas County’s Far West

Although 46 percent of Douglas County residents live in incorporated towns, 73 percent of Reedsport Area residents live in Reedsport, the only incorporated town. This disparity is not surprising, given the area’s rugged terrain and limited highway access. Expanding the range a few miles to just beyond Reedsport’s city limits, the small communities of Winchester Bay and Gardiner increase the in-town-living preference to 83 percent – quite different from Douglas County as well as southern, neighboring Coos County (61%).

It is often said that demographics are destiny. Between 1990 and 2016, Oregon’s population increased 43 percent. In contrast, Douglas County, although growing steadily, increased only 17 percent. Coastal Coos County, hampered by limited access to major transportation routes, saw its population decline during the depths of the Great Recession. However, since 1990, Coos County’s population has netted 5 percent growth. Of all Douglas County’s incorporated communities, the City of Reedsport is the only one reporting a population decline from 1990 to 2016. Having supported nearly 4,800 people in 1990, by 2016 it had just over 4,100 residents – a 14 percent loss.

Rural Oregon counties typically have older populations – the same is true across the nation. Rural western Douglas County – the Reedsport Area, has an even older demographic than both Douglas County and next-door Coos County. This is particularly obvious when examining the percentage of working-age and older residents and comparing those findings with the county and the state. Demands for goods and services varies depending on interests and needs; age is a major determinant.

The Reedsport Area’s Demographics – an Ever-Present Challenge

Of the Reedsport Area’s 5,615 residents, 18 percent are under age 18, and school-related activities are paramount in importance. Working-age residents (ages 18-64) account for just over 50 percent of the population (2,888); employment, housing, and providing for families tend to dominate interests. Retirement-age individuals account for almost one out of three area residents (1,714). These three broad age groupings provide a general overview of the population and help characterize basic categories of likely demand for goods and services. However, a more detailed examination of the population offers a varied perspective, especially for youth ages 15 to 24 when entry-level jobs and associated educational activities are the norm.
Schools and children’s education coupled with job-readiness activities for youth are crucial interests for young families and community leaders. However, the Reedsport Area has fewer children ages 5 to 14 (9.2%; just over 510), and fewer young people ages 15 to 24 (10.2%, about 570), than either Douglas or Coos counties as well as less than the state. This suggests the Reedsport Area does not easily retain or attract young families – an observation further supported by a relatively small percentage of working-age residents. Forty-five percent of the Area’s population are ages 25 to 64, a range that excludes entry-level workers; 50 percent of Douglas and Coos residents and nearly 54 percent of Oregon’s residents are ages 25 to 64. Nearly one-third of Area residents are ages 65 and older, more than reported for Douglas and Coos county residents (23 percent), and statewide where that percentage drops to just over 15 percent.

Educational Attainment and its Impacts on Financial Well-being

In addition to age-related differences in demands for goods and services, educational attainment also influences expectations and opportunities. From a workforce perspective, 66 percent of Oregon’s projected job openings (2014-2024), will require no more than high school completion. However to be competitive, 46 percent of jobs will require a minimum of high school completion.

Educational attainment varies from one geography to another, with notable differences between urban and rural areas. For Oregon’s population ages 25 and older, 10 percent have not completed high school; 24 percent have completed high school – an achievement often considered a minimum requirement for competitiveness in the job market. Additionally, nearly 40 percent of Oregonians have at least an associate’s degree, and roughly, one out of three has a bachelor’s degree or more.

Rural southwestern Oregon education completion rates are notably lower. In Douglas County, 11 percent of working age residents (ages 25 and older) have not completed high school and 32 percent have; 25 percent have at least an associate’s degree, and 16 percent have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Rural Coos County’s educational attainment is similar to that of Douglas County, with slightly more residents having attained at least associate’s or bachelor’s degrees (27% and 18%, respectively).
In marked contrast, at the lower-end of educational attainment, 14 percent of Reedsport Area residents have not completed high school. Thirty-one percent of Area residents have completed high school; 23 percent have at least an associate’s degree, and 15 percent have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The lack of high school completion serves to limit opportunities for individuals as well as for local  businesses and economic development interests. (Note: restricting the perspective to those aged 25 to 64, considered prime working age, shows comparable percentages.)

Over the years, there have been numerous studies and reports regarding the impact of education on financial well-being. U.S. Census Bureau’s summary statistics indicate a strong correlation between educational attainment and percent of people in poverty. As was mentioned above, Reedsport Area residents have a lower high school completion rate than overall county or statewide residents. This discrepancy is clear when comparing poverty rates across age groups and regions.

In 2014, the overall, national poverty rate for people aged 25 and older was 12 percent. Those without a high school diploma had a poverty rate of 29 percent; those with a bachelor’s degree or higher had a poverty rate of 5 percent. Oregon’s 2015 poverty rate was 16.5 percent; Douglas County’s poverty rate was 19.3 percent; Coos County’s was 18.3 percent; and the Reedsport Area’s was 22.8 percent.  For those with less than high school completion, the poverty rates were much higher: Oregon, 27 percent; Douglas and Coos counties, 25 percent; and the Reedsport Area, 29 percent of those without high school completion were below poverty.

Douglas County typically ranks among Oregon’s top 10 counties for high poverty rates. The Oregon Department of Human Services, Office of Forecasting, Research, and Analysis has defined the Reedsport Area’s northern region (census tract 100) as a “high poverty hotspot.”

The Reedsport Area’s Industry Mix and Wages

Southwestern Oregon, long considered a natural resource-reliant region, has historically depended on timber, fishing, and tourism for its economic base. This focus influences wages. Overall, the Reedsport Area average annual wage is $31,994. This is not only less than Douglas County’s average ($37,954) and Coos County’s ($35,949), it is two-thirds of the state’s average wage ($48,322). To put this into perspective, it is useful to compare the per capita personal incomes (PCPI) of these regions – the PCPI is a statistic often used to gauge an area’s economic well-being or standard of living. The combined per capita personal income of the two census tracts making up the Reedsport Area is $20,298. Douglas County’s is $22,591; Coos County’s is $22,667; and Oregon’s is $27,684. An effect of this difference is that the Reedsport Area has less economic capacity to invest in community development than Douglas and Coos counties or the state.
An examination of both private and public sectors’ employment on an industry basis shows some surprising diversity, especially for the sparsely populated Reedsport Area. As with the state, the Reedsport Area, Douglas, and Coos counties have a significant percentage of employment in the health care and social assistance arena. However, unique compared with the rest of the state, the hospitals in the Reedsport Area and Coos County are public entities – health districts – so their sizes and wage scales likely differ from private hospitals. Other industry sectors also reflect regional infrastructural differences, e.g., while 76 percent of the Reedsport Area’s trade, transportation, and utilities sector is dominated by retail trade (average wage $23,255) only 58 percent of Oregon’s trade, transportation, and utilities industry is accounted for by retail trade activities ($29,095).

Taking advantage of the scenic venues of the Oregon Coast as well as the unsurpassed vistas along the Umpqua’s riverside drive connecting the city of Reedsport and Interstate 5, the Reedsport Area’s largest employing industry sector is leisure and hospitality (average wage is $15,102). This wage is half of the area’s all-industry average ($31,994) and reflects the seasonal nature of tourism-related businesses. The statewide average for leisure and hospitality, a seasonal industry known for often offering part-time employment, is $19,931, which is 41 percent of the Oregon all-industry average ($48,213). Tourism consultant Dean Runyan and Associates estimates, in 2016, tourists spent $59.7 million in West Douglas County (the Reedsport Area) and $173.5 million in East Douglas County. Local accommodations accounted for 45 percent of the expenditures.

Occupations and Opportunities

There are wide varieties of occupations found both within and across industries. Some occupations are very specific to a particular industry (e.g., physical therapists find employment in the health care and social assistance arena), while some occupations find opportunities across a broad spectrum of businesses (e.g., accountants). When looking at industry wages, it is important to take the range of occupations into account. An industry such as manufacturing tends to have a large number of skilled workers – more so than accommodation and food services. The professional and business services industry includes a wide range of employment opportunities that varies from urban to rural area. For example, in an urban community there are more accountants, engineers, attorneys, etc. than are employed in a smaller, more rural area. Thus, the types of opportunities and wages for those working in this industry will depend on the size of the community, its commuting distance to more urban centers, and proximity to institutions of higher education – especially important for those in scientific occupations.
Rural southwestern Oregon has fewer people employed in management, business, science, and arts-related occupations than the state. However, the Reedsport Area and surrounding counties offer more opportunities to work in natural resources, construction, and related jobs (often seasonal and part-time). Geography, access to communication, and transportation networks affect not only the industry mix but also the occupations available for employment.

Retaining and Attracting Residents, Some Considerations

Regardless of whether an individual is just entering the workforce or is preparing to retire, availability of housing is always a concern. In keeping with the lower wages, the Reedsport Area’s cost of housing is notably less than other parts of the state. Forty-five percent of the Area’s owner-occupied housing units cost less than $150,000. In comparison, Douglas County’s lower-cost housing accounts for 40 percent of units; Coos County, 38 percent; and Oregon, 22 percent. The age of housing inventory contributes to the cost differences. Three-fourths of Reedsport Area housing was built prior to 1980, as was 60 percent of Douglas County housing, 67 percent of Coos County’s, and 55 percent of Oregon’s housing. Aging inventory, location, and condition – especially in areas where coastal or winter weather presents additional maintenance concerns – all impose constraints for those wanting to live and work in the Reedsport Area.


Far-western Douglas County’s Reedsport Area, closely aligned economically and socially with neighboring Coos County, stands apart from the rest of Douglas County. Highway transportation routes ensure north-south connections among other coastal communities; however, roads capable of efficient, east-west transportation of goods are limited, albeit scenic. Recent rehabilitation of the Coos Bay Rail Link, a short line railroad operated by the International Port of Coos Bay, will provide increasing opportunities to ship goods between inland urban centers and the coastal communities, including Reedsport.
Dependence on the seasonal leisure and hospitality industry for nearly one job out of every five, coupled with a related reliance on retail trade, serves to keep wages low. For those workers with requisite skills, the presence of a vital and well-established public sector health care district provides well-paying employment opportunities. Also, in addition to several new retail businesses in Reedsport and Winchester Bay, the site of a former paper mill in Gardiner is slated to become the new Reedsport Commerce Park (development details have not yet been announced).

Given geographic constraints; challenges of a preponderance of retirement-aged residents; limited educational attainment of the overall population; and lack of infrastructure maintenance and development, the Reedsport Area’s small size and narrow economic base can be expected to continue to limit its overall economic development. However, business ties to neighboring coastal communities in Coos County and the ease of commuting serve to extend the labor shed and broaden employment opportunities.

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