October 27, 2017

Rural Washington gets its day

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Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, greets Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, during the AWB Rural Jobs Summit Reception held Oct. 23, 2017, in the concourse of the Grant County International Airport. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)
Two hundred and fifty people, nearly two dozen lawmakers from both parties and 13 panels made up the full day AWB's statewide Rural Jobs Summit Oct. 24 at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.

Their task: to offer candid analysis on the most effective and promising ways to create economic prosperity in the rural regions that exist in all 39 Washington counties.

The day started on a positive note as president of the century-old agricultural business, The McGregor Company, and staunch defender of farm families and rural communities, Alex McGregor, offered opening remarks to the standing-room-only crowd.

Despite the uneven economic landscape, McGregor is hopeful about the future because of a "tenacity that verges on stubbornness" and "unquenchable optimism" of the people who live in rural Washington.

But, he said, there are challenges to expanding prosperity to rural communities and small towns.

Those challenges -- and solutions to them -- were covered throughout the day during panels that featured state agency heads, local government officials and legislative leaders as well as top industry experts, who, in rapid succession, outlined what they believe is needed to create jobs in every corner of the state and took questions from attendees.

Of the many barriers to economic growth are:

  • The Hirst water rights ruling: Failure by the Legislature to enact a permanent fix to the 2016 state Supreme Court ruling is impacting families and economic development in rural areas of the state.
  • Access to broadband internet: Businesses, schools and local services are increasingly reliant on the internet for day-to-day operations. Lack of access in rural areas makes it less likely a business will locate to the area.
  • Infrastructure: Rural airports, roads and other vital infrastructure is required for business to function outside Washington's population centers.
  • Workforce training and development: There is an increasing need to train local students to fill local jobs. Without an adequate workforce pipeline, young people leave rural Washington areas to find work in metro regions.
  • Regulatory and tax uncertainty: As rural regions struggle for investment that will create jobs, state agency overreach on project permitting, like that of Millennium Bulk Terminals' project and others in southwest Washington and elsewhere, are delaying the creation of family-wage jobs. The governor's veto of the bipartisan manufacturing tax relief disproportionately impacts small- and medium-sized employers in rural Washington.
"I remember the day of the Hirst ruling well," said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake and panelist for the water issues discussion. "It's the day the state Supreme Court overturned years of standing water law."

Warnick was the prime sponsor of legislation to fix the Hirst ruling -- legislation that passed the Senate four times during the record-long 193-day session, but was held up by the majority party in the House.

Water issues remain a challenge, but lunchtime speaker Mark Sweeney, senior principal at McCallum Sweeney Consulting, told the audience that "rural areas can compete" for businesses and jobs.

As a site selector for major corporations, Sweeney offered a view to rural leaders from his perspective, noting that rural communities should know that "there is no perfect place," so small communities should focus on avoiding risk when being considered for siting of a new company.

Potential risks that can be heightened in rural communities include:

  • Real estate – If the location isn’t successful, will the company be able to sell it?
  • Labor – Is the workforce sufficient to support the business?
  • Growth potential – The community may be able to support the business now, but can it grow with the company?
Communities can position themselves to attract employers by identifying areas where their risks are high and taking action to reduce them, he said.

A mid-morning breakout session focused solely on infrastructure and the role it plays in attracting employers. It featured Stephen McFadden, director, Adams County Economic Development, who moderated the panel that included Jeffrey Bishop, executive director, Port of Moses Lake; and, Eric Temple, president, Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad.

The takeaway: infrastructure investment, or lack of it, can make or break a community's ability to compete for new business and the jobs that come with it.

The day ended with an hour-long legislative leadership report from Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm; and Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline. It was moderated by AWB Vice President of Government Affairs Gary Chandler.

The panel agreed on addressing the manufacturing tax relief vetoed by the governor and spared over whether the state Department of Ecology was outside its scope of authority and sidestepping process protocol in project permitting decisions that are holding back rural job creation.

There is good bipartisan work happening in the Legislature, the panelists said, but Wilcox believes the executive branch needs to participate more in those efforts.

As the day closed, Chandler, like McGregor, ended with an emotional plea for unity and bipartisanship in supporting rural communities he and others are so passionate to preserve.

"Working together, there is no issue raised today that cannot be solved," he said.

AWB started the conversation earlier this year on how to help rural Washington realize the economic recovery of urban areas.

This week, rural Washington got its own, full day to outline the many solutions and barriers to expanding economic opportunity to small towns across the state. And, it's a conversation that will continue throughout the 2018 legislative session and beyond.

To join the conversation and participate in crafting solutions, contact AWB Government Affairs Director Mike Ennis at 360.943.1600.