Corum Ketchum graduated from his master’s program and is now running his own city less than a year later.

The John Day City Council appointed Ketchum as an interim city manager May 10. The appointment is on a trial basis: Should both Ketchum and the City Council remain satisfied with the arrangement, he’ll be made the permanent CEO in six months.

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Ketchum now manages a 14-person staff in a town of about 1,600 people.

For a 29-year-old who once considered a career as a pro gamer, the sudden upswing in his career wasn’t expected. But Ketchum said he’s ready for the job.

Running John Day wasn’t a part of Ketchum’s original plans. He attended the University of Oregon as an undergraduate so he could become a public planner.

His career outlook changed after he joined Americorps’ Resource Assistance for Rural Environments program. He spent two years in Veneta, a town of 5,000 people west of Eugene, working with the city administrator on economic development projects.

Ketchum learned to enjoy working in a smaller community, where trying to get things done wasn’t as difficult as it was in larger and more “calcified” cities.

“The bureaucracy is always much thicker, where if you spend time in a rural community, you get to meet the couple dozen people who are really excited about investing in their place,” he said.

He returned to the University of Oregon to get his master’s in public administration with the intent of seeking a leadership role, but another passion almost took him down another path.

Ketchum grew up playing video games and was good enough at games like Overwatch and Team Fortress that he helped form an e-sports team. The team was competitive if not exactly lucrative.

“We never really made any money,” he said. “I’d say we earned pizza money. If we placed low on a tournament, we’d get paid like 100 bucks as a team, and then I’d divvy that six ways. We’d get like, 10, 15 bucks.”

As Ketchum wrapped up his master’s degree in 2021, the University of Oregon was looking to start its own official e-sports team and was looking for someone to manage it. He didn’t get the job after applying, but a university administrator encouraged him to think bigger.

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Many local businesses along scenic bike routes display welcome signs for visiting cyclists.

File photo of downtown John Day, with a sign promoting it as a cycling destination in Oregon.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

It was around this time that Ketchum read a John Day investment plan that was focused on a project to build a water reclamation facility that would repurpose the city’s wastewater for other uses like agriculture.

John Day was looking for a community development director and Ketchum felt like it was a good match for him based on his work in Veneta.

“It seemed like a really natural fit for my skill set and who I really am, and more or less a calling for me to come out here and fill that gap,” he said.

Ketchum grew up in Eugene but he has family ties to Grant County. His grandfather was a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and worked in the Prairie City district.

During that time, his grandmother taught at Grant Union High School and his father learned to swim at the pool in John Day. His grandfather eventually transferred to a different district, but Ketchum said he still has family who live in Eastern Oregon.

In March, Ketchum started work under City Manager Nick Green, who had built a reputation on introducing novel ideas to John Day, like building 3-D printed houses and the water reclamation project.

Ketchum wanted to absorb as much knowledge from Green as possible since Green was already planning his exit. Ketchum had only been working for the city a few months when Green entered his office.

Green told him the city could spend thousands of dollars on a search firm, but he had a feeling they wouldn’t find a better candidate than Ketchum. The City Council agreed and gave Ketchum the top job.

As the city manager, Ketchum said he wants to continue Green’s initiatives, while also offering more “short-term wins” for John Day, like more community events, downtown investments and outdoor trails.

Housing is also a concern for Ketchum. Although Grant County was the only county in the state to lose population in the 2020 Census, Ketchum said John Day has a less than 1% vacancy rate in its housing market.

Related: People are leaving John Day. Housing shortage may be part of the problem

Anticipating growth fueled by Boise to the east and Bend to the west, Ketchum said the city is working toward making more of its land developable for future housing. After decades of stagnancy, Ketchum said 40 houses will be built this summer and another 70 in the fall.

Ketchum only brought a few years of experience to the job by the time he became city manager and he’s now a part of a profession where most of his peers are 40 and over. But Ketchum said his youth is a good match for the town.

“I think my youth is a real asset,” he said. “My demographic is the exact kind of person that we want to be seeing more of out here in John Day. People my age going into their 40s, the prime earners, the people that have families, the people that start businesses and are really in the rocket years as professionals.”

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