Southwest Washington Seeks Foothold On Hard Road Back To Economic Health

Southwest Washington Seeks Foothold On Hard Road Back To Economic Health
Recreational fishing out of Westport has been a mainstay of the economy in southwest Washington and the 19th state legislative district, along with commercial fishing and timber industry work. But times have been tough lately in the 19th. Legislators, economic development officials and entrepreneurs see new twists on tourism, and major port and infrastructure projects as central to an economic turnaround. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons.

In November, Jim Walsh became only the second Republican in the last 70 years to win a state legislative seat in Washington’s 19th district. Walsh sees his home turf as ripe for growth. In fact, it bears all the markings of a test bed for economic recovery where it’s most needed.

Bracing Levels Of Household Poverty

Comprised of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties and parts of Grays Harbor, Cowlitz and Lewis counties, the 19th boasts scenic Northwest splendor and strong communities. Yet it is also now a place where earning a decent living can be hard.

According to U.S. Census data, 13 percent of households in the district live at or below poverty level. That number grows to 23.4 percent for households with children under 18 only and a bracing 36.3 percent for households with children under age 5 only.

Those outcomes on household poverty for the 19th are respectively 4, 9, and almost 22 percent higher than for the state as a whole.

Shifting Jobs Landscape

A September survey for Greater Grays Harbor Inc. of 90 local business identified upsides in the area’s business climate including lower operational and living costs, strong networking potential for entrepreneurs, and loyal customers.

Downsides included “a weak economy with seasonal cycles for tourism, high unemployment, and limited high-wage jobs.”

Said Walsh, “My district has been down economically for a long time and…remains a natural resources-based economy….certainly, timber and commercial fisheries are a critical part of our economic equation. The indications that I see from the incoming administration in D.C. is that they may be willing to loosen up on some of the regulatory constraints on forestry and possibly commercial fishing.”

Natural Advantages, Lighter Regulatory Touch

Walsh added, “I’d like to see our economic recovery start with the ports and sort of radiate out. Let our natural advantages encourage development. We are well-located and have a very inexpensive cost of living and doing business. If we can rationalize the permitting process, then those economic advantages will shine.”

State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) is the ranking minority member for the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee. He said, “It’s tough to tell a company to come here and locate if it takes years to permit something.”

Port Projects A Focal Point

In 2012, Contanda Steel LLC began an expansion project of the liquid bulk storage and transport facility in the Port of Grays Harbor, according to David Richey, Spokesperson for Contanda Grays Harbor.

The port is in the 19th, and the proposed project would handle nearly 18 million barrels of crude oil a year to be stored and then shipped to Puget Sound or California refineries.

An original shoreline permit was granted by the city of Hoquiam in 2013 but appeals from environmental groups and a tribe led to a reset on permitting.

The project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process began in 2014 and the final EIS was released on September 30 of this year. The project will now seek a shoreline permit once more, according to Richey.

The proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export terminal project in Longview, Washington is in the 19th’s southeast corner. It is nearing four years and 10 months since its permitting process began.

Tighter Review Timelines Urged

Ted Sprague, President of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, told Lens the legislature could give the Department of Ecology “serious timelines” for project permitting, plus penalties for running into overtime.

Opponents of economic development projects “know the system very well and know if they keep delaying and delaying hopefully a project will locate to a different state, and that’s how they are using the system,” said Sprague.

Takko said the slow process affects other infrastructure imperatives. “We’ve got this really important road project here, the SR 432 and SR 433 interchange…we got $85 million to rebuild that and do grade separation…it’s actually going to take three years just to go from Square One of the permitting process to actually pound the nails and start the project. This is one of the things that…needs to be done for safety and commerce, yet we still go through all these hoops,” said Takko.

Known as the Industrial Way/Oregon Way Intersection Project, the initiative according to its website would boost freight mobility; aid “new business development on available developable land, such as the Mint Farm Industrial Park;” and lay groundwork for “creation of up to 3,390 permanent jobs.”

There’s more. Gary Nelson, Executive Director of the Port of Grays Harbor, said it continues to seek out other prospective industrial tenants. One now is a “chemical company that would supply a couple of major manufacturers in the county and buy from somebody else; the marketing fits well.”

Nelson added the port prefers to limit the role of local or state public investment to the leveraging of private or federal dollars because the economic benefits are greater and more enduring.

Mid-Career Boost

Grays Harbor College is working with the Port to determine how to best deploy vocational education resources to fill employment needs, according to President Jim Minkler.

“We need to offer it in a way that is not only accessible to students as they graduate high school, but also…to…workers that already have jobs, that would like to advance in their own vocation,” said Minkler.

Getting It Right On Workforce Training

Walsh said,”We want to return to practical-minded career training…tied to specific projects being developed in this area. Not everybody is going to write code.” Getting the details right “is hard to do, there’s an art to it. A lot is in the timing.”

Another strand of future growth for the 19th district is tourism, including new market segments.

Drawing on the success of similar outposts in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, the envisioned LOGE project in Westport is raising money on Kickstarter for an affordable guest community of motel and bunk rooms plus campsites and related facilities for surfers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.


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