Way up the tracks — all the way to Montana — there are signs of an improving economy.

Way up the tracks — all the way to Montana — there are signs of an improving economy.

How long it will take for a revived economic engine to pull through Southern Oregon is still anyone's guess, however.

Fred Dickson routinely drives a stretch of Interstate 90 between Great Falls and Helena, which gives him a unique perspective to examine economic activity.

"Burlington Northern stores empty rail cars in Montana because there are lots of empty tracks and the lines aren't used that much," said Dickson, prior to Thursday's seventh annual Southern Oregon Business Conference at the Red Lion Hotel in Medford, where he was a keynote speaker. "It's a stretch of about 90 (miles) and two years ago I began clocking it and found there were 25 miles of empty rail cars on the sidetracks. Now it's down to 16 miles. The bimodal, flat cars that carry truck containers are starting to come back into play."

The disappearing rail cars hint toward a reviving economy.

"What we're seeing is very slow, infinitesimal movement," Dickson said. "We've seen retailing chains pick up a little in terms of inventory, but not so much in hiring."

The senior vice president and chief market strategist for Northwest financial firm D.A. Davidson & Co. said business investment in technology has seen a bump, perhaps out of necessity.

"They are starting to order technology equipment because they realize they have to keep their infrastructure in place to keep in business," Dickson said. "So you've seen sales increases in PCs, notebooks and data security software."

Some firms are simply increasing hours for current employees, who may previously have had their work weeks reduced, Dickson said. "Rather than hiring people they're simply using overtime or expanding hours for the people already there."

Construction, however, hasn't seen any signs of breaking out of the doldrums.

"There's been absolutely no improvement anywhere in the region in terms of construction," Dickson said. "It has to be devastating."

Passage of ballot measures 66 and 67 this week already have produced negative effects on Southern Oregon's economy, he said.

"I don't think Oregon's voting base realized the implications of (Measure) 67," he said. As an example, Roseburg was one of three or four cities an out-of-state company was considering for relocation, he said. But it had to withdraw after the measures passed.

"Oregon is not a tax-friendly state," he said.

In the realm of energy, natural gas prices have not risen at the same rate as oil, because of "the tremendous reserves we have all throughout the country," Dickson said.

Checking out the area's economy on the front-line level, Dickson encountered a waiter who said earnings from tips have climbed from where they were two years ago, because of getting more hours of work. A golf equipment salesman reported that sales are up 6 percent from last year at this time after sinking 25 percent in 2008.

John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest, said Oregon was at a disadvantage during the recession not only because its labor force grew while jobs were disappearing, but because it didn't have a strong connection with military and defense spending other states have.

"The only cushion during this recession was the federal government," Tapogna said.

He said Jackson and Josephine counties suffered disproportionate job losses to the rest of the state during the recession.

Tapogna added that retirement checks and investments account for 43 percent of the personal income in the two counties, while the figure for the state as a whole is 35 percent.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.