The possible transformation of a former lumber mill site located just outside the city of Yakima into a mixed-use development has the potential to create 3,000 to 5,000 jobs and diversify the region’s economic climate. Spurring those efforts are local infrastructure improvements funded in part through the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package.
Randy Beehler is the communications and public affairs director for the city of Yakima. He told Lens that the site located just across the Yakima River “has been identified many times as absolutely critical to the sustainability of the central Washington region and our economic vitality. Developing that piece of property is key as we move forward and also try to diversify our economy as best we can.”
The private-public partnership that includes the city of Yakima, Yakima County and the private owners aims to redevelop the 225-acre property that was once owned by the Cascade Lumber Company – which at its peak operation employed several hundred workers. A decline in timber harvests eventually led to its closure in 2006 at the loss of 250 jobs. The mill was demolished in 2010 and the property sold to out-of-state private developers. That same year, the city of Yakima received funding to pay for street development and infrastructure changes around the site via a program known as the Local Infrastructure Finance Tool (LIFT). The money has been used to build a roundabout and a segment of Bravo Company Boulevard running along the site, with three total roundabouts planned.
In 2015, stakeholders secured critical funding when the state legislature approved the $16 billion funding package to pay for 16 years of statewide transportation projects. As a result, $50 million will pay for half of the road improvements around the site. That includes a new “East-West” corridor consisting of a four-lane road and river crossing to relieve traffic congestion on local arterials. Currently there is only one local bridge spanning that section of the Yakima River.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will widen I-82 to provide ramps connecting to the new road.
Beehler said the Connecting Washington funding helped shorten “what we had expected would be possibly a 30-year process” of building the new infrastructure to just five years.
“Putting in infrastructure, roads, water, sewer, utilities – that is the essence of economic development,” Beehler said. “If the roads and water and sewer and utilities weren’t brought to that site, it’s just a piece of bare land.”
The Yakima Economic Development Strategic Plan for 2017-2020 notes that its redevelopment “has potential to significantly improve the first impression of the community. Yakima has finite land for job creation.” At the same time, the plans warns that if not carried out properly, the site could simply shift existing business and jobs from another part of the area.
Because of that, “a thoughtful and strategic development plan is essential for long‐term and sustained quality economic development,” the plan states. “As such, quality development would increase Yakima’s image and grow the tax base.”
With that in mind, the redevelopment project envisions employers such as retail, health care and light industrial that contrasts with Yakima’s reputation as a major fruit producer.
“We’re very heavily rooted in agriculture,” Beehler said. “That is a big piece of our economy…and that’s great. Agriculture tends to be quite stable, but it also has its drawbacks. Agriculture tends to…provide lower paying jobs. So, if we have an opportunity to develop that site to light industrial that is a huge deal for us.”
Yet possible changes to parts of the project could delay it unless more funding is acquired. At the June 26 meeting of the state Joint Transportation Committee in Yakima, Beehler told panel members that the city could potentially purchase the property. According to the Yakima-Herald, the site is owned by OfficeMax, Yakima Resources, Dunollie Enterprises and LeeLynn & Wiley Mt.
“Not having direct control over the destiny of the mill site presents a challenge,” Beehler told lawmaker at the June 26 meeting. “While the challenge can be overcome, it depends on the cooperation of the current mill site (owners). Were the city to actually own the property, control over how and when the mill site is developed would be much more predictable.”
However, he added that the price tag may require additional state or federal dollars to the tune of $28 million.
The first phase of the East-West corridor is expected to begin as early as next year. The funding timeline for WSDOT’s I-82 improvements is 2022-2027.