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The Swan Lake Energy Storage Project will be the cornerstone of Southern Oregon’s post-covid economic recovery

September 28, 2020

Klamath County developers painted a bright picture of the future of Klamath County’s economy, noting unprecedented levels of construction and development in economic sectors that have been largely undeterred by COVID-19.

Between this year and next year, $1.2 billion in new construction is planned for the county, which Klamath County Economic Development Association said is an all-time high.

Andrew Stork with KCEDA boasted not only a large volume of projects, but also diversity in the industries. Ongoing development includes clean energy, hotels, services, banking, retail, education and more.

Stork feels the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately benefit Klamath and other rural regions, due to the numbers of people moving away from nearby metros and to smaller communities that weren’t hit so hard by the virus.

“In a weird way, I think that COVID has kind of lent itself to communities like Klamath,” Stork said. “I think there’s built-in frustrations that they’ve realized, living in metro areas, that make Klamath more attractive.”

While he said they aren’t ignoring the area’s economic past, Stork is seeing new industries arrive that haven’t had a presence in the past. Industries that they’ve identified as good fits for the area are clean technology, advanced manufacturing, tourism and outdoors, technology and natural resources, he said.

“That’s a combination of things that have been historical staples of Klamath, but also identifies emerging industry that would have a nice fit within Klamath and make it a contemporary economy,” he said.

One example of clean energy development in the area is the Swan Lake energy storage. The $740 million project located northeast of Klamath Falls will serve as a sort of giant battery of hydroelectric energy for the basin.

The Swan Lake project is past the permitting phase and developers are now working to acquire equipment and finalize the design before breaking ground in December 2021. It has been more than 10 years in the making, so vice president of Rye Development Erik Steimle said they’re still pushing ahead despite COVID. He said he’s only seen the demand for renewable energy increase during COVID.

The project is estimated to create more than 3,300 jobs in construction and long term employment. Steimle said they have an agreement to hire locally before looking to employ people from elsewhere.

“As this project construction gets underway, these are jobs that will go to a lot of local individuals, but even regional specialists that come from cities up north, the Bay Area to the south, and all those individuals are going to be spending time in Klamath Falls, having a positive impact on the local community,” he said.

Steimle also highlighted apprenticeship opportunities with the four-year project build. He said those looking to get trade training can start this project as an apprentice and finish as a journeyman.

“Labor across the west is hurting right now for young recruits. There’s still quite a bit of work, even with COVID at this point, and there’s less and less people going into the trades,” he said. “An apprentice could begin at this project and become a journeyman, all while being in Klamath Falls, all while coming home to their family at night, all while being paid good wages to learn and become a journeyman on a single project. Those are somewhat rare, and especially rare in Southern Oregon.”

Steimle compared the pandemic to the demand for renewable energy. He said at first, both COVID and renewable energy sounded scary and like something happening far away. Suddenly both arrived in America, in towns big and small.

“With COVID, you know, we heard about it for a little bit, it seemed like it was something that was happening somewhere else and couldn’t affect us until it was essentially upon us,” he said. “And, you know, we are dealing with it in real time, but at the same time, we can see to the other side, and you can look at the same thing now with renewable energy.”

Stork noted the way the pandemic has forced many people to work remotely. He plans to capitalize on that and attract more people to the area who can continue to work for businesses located in bigger cities.

Another project Stork highlighted was the General Duffy’s food cart pavilion in the works in downtown Klamath Falls. He said that initiative will add to Klamath’s “livability feel.”

“Investments like that really kind of take us the next level being like a tourism place, a place where people truly stop and want to engage and get involved in what we kind of have to offer here,” he said.

Local company Bogatay Construction is seeing their share of local development.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in the community, which makes it a promising future as we look forward,” said the president, Matt Bogatay. “I would say we’re on the cusp of some really great projects coming to the community that are going to be huge benefits.”

Bogatay is finishing up its own expansion with a new headquarters building.

“We’re going into the last 30 days of construction right now, and it’s going to allow us to have about four times expansion capability,” Bogatay said. “And we’re already close to filling our growth for the new facility and, actually already talking about doing another building to accommodate additional need.”

Bogatay said his firm is also seeing a wide variety of interest in the area.

“Some of the projects on our horizon are projects that we haven’t seen in decades occur in our community and, you know, only time will tell, but a lot of them have made commitments and the benefits you will have … it’s going to be a huge blessing when we look at the overall future of where we grow.”

During COVID-19, Bogatay said they expanded their workforce by 15 percent, mostly those who were laid off elsewhere, and were asked to donate their PPE. Since then it’s been difficult to get any new order for that equipment.

“I would say, impacts are inconvenient but necessary, and we’re just fortunate that we were able to keep our doors open,” he said.

While businesses grapple with the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, Bogatay hasn’t felt too much turbulence in terms of their work.

“Unfortunately, we had two projects that were put on hold because of the uncertainty. But overall, we still saw plenty of other projects come up and, honestly, we’ve never been busier as a company,” he said.

Bogatay has seen the private sector hit hardest by COVID-19, but said that’s been followed by an increase in government projects.

Once all these projects are completed, Stork is hoping this is the first wave of development for the basin of many.

“When you get that level of activity going on, economy, it doesn’t go unnoticed and introduces opportunities for more investment to take place,” Stork said.

Bogatay hopes to see Klamath finally reach the potential he knows it has.

“You know growing up, we’ve always — you know that those of us that were born and raised here, we’ve always heard of our parents talk about the potential that Klamath Falls has … and I think we’re going to start seeing that over the next couple of years as a community,” Bogatay said. “We’re going to see the hard work start to pay off.”

- Herald and News - By Becca Robbins