Pendleton is proof that for Oregon, supporting innovation works

June 23, 2023 3:30 am
A drone at the test range in Pendleton.

An innovation grant for more than $300,000 was crucial to helping Pendleton develop a successful drone range. (Courtesy of Steve Chrisman)

For Oregon’s innovators to positively impact their communities, state support is crucial.

I’ve seen this firsthand in the community of Pendleton, where support from our state leaders has enabled us to transform the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport into the Northwest’s premier unmanned aerial systems, or drone testing site.

By building infrastructure and creating the right opportunities, its tenants have created 200-plus high wage jobs. It has also built a thriving local drone industry that supports restaurants, hotels, construction companies and other businesses. And it’s an example of how our rural communities thrive when Oregon takes action to support emerging innovators.

In its earliest stages, our team at Pendleton’s drone range sought assistance from the Oregon Innovation Council, a public-private partnership under Business Oregon that supports innovators to take new technologies from an idea to market. Business Oregon’s initial grants of $886,000 over five years and a $301,000 High Impact Opportunity Project grant from the Oregon Innovation Council allowed us to hire a skilled drone range manager and chief engineer to lead the range’s creation.

It also allowed us to fully equip a machine shop, electronics lab, 3D printing lab and build a drone training classroom with leading equipment. These assets were essential to attract tenants, including many Fortune 500 companies, to grow our local drone workforce, and launch the range at a time when other funds weren’t available.

Pendleton’s range is currently one of the busiest drone test ranges in the United States, supporting over 23,000 drone activations in 2022. Since the range’s existence, more than 200 full-time jobs have been created, including engineers, drone pilots, maintenance workers, software experts and parts fabricators. These jobs pay much more than the local average wage of $44,000 a year, with positions typically paying $60,000-$100,000 without a college degree.

Local businesses around the range have also reported growth as contractors have been hired to build facilities and construct a new 78-room airport hotel and restaurant. The range has also been a boon for the dozens of local restaurants, bars and hotels.

This success could be replicated throughout Oregon. There are hundreds of brilliant, creative minds across Oregon with ideas that could flourish and become profitable businesses which drive our residents’ prosperity.

But to get off the ground, most up-and-coming innovators need equipment, facilities and access to talent and professional networks. This is doubly true in rural areas. Take Spright, for example – a Pendleton tenant that’s creating drone solutions for utility inspection and medical delivery.

Without the test range, the right facilities wouldn’t be present in Pendleton for Spright to test its drones here – or for the company to hire and spend money with local businesses.

Our state has a plan to provide the foundational elements innovators need, not only in Portland but also in rural Oregon. It’s known as the 10-Year Innovation Plan, and if adequately supported, it would enable entrepreneurs across the state to prove the success of their ideas, win millions in federal grants and private investment and spend those dollars with local businesses – creating jobs in diverse communities where our residents need them most.

If fully executed, the plan could make our state’s economy and rural communities more diverse, inclusive and resilient. And its impact would be substantial: Since 1980, emerging innovators have created 50% of all new jobs in the U.S.

The plan would expand where innovation is possible – innovators have mostly seen success in the Willamette Valley – and bring much needed spending and jobs to communities across the state, as it has in Pendleton.

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Steve Chrisman
Steve Chrisman

Steve Chrisman is the economic development director for the city of Pendleton, Oregon, where he has worked since 2013. Chrisman spearheaded the city’s effort to transform its airport into an unmanned aerial vehicle range, or drone site, which today hosts numerous Fortune 500 clients and tenants.