President's Column

Monday, October 2

Rural issues coming into focus

It’s a familiar story. Young people grow up in a small town, graduate from high school, go away to college and never come back, at least not to stay.

People have been moving to big cities for decades, but the trend has accelerated since the Great Recession. Since 2000, the population of agricultural counties has dropped 4 percentage points as young people pursue job opportunities in the city.

Washington is by no means alone. Atlanta is thriving, and yet 53 percent of Georgia’s counties — mostly rural — are distressed, according to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. In Utah, rural counties are being left behind as metro areas boom, prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to embark on a rural jobs tour.

“I will not rest until all 29 counties experience the same economic success,” the governor said.

That sounds a lot like what employers have been saying here for the last few years. While Seattle booms, much of the rest of the state is lagging.

The good news is there are signs people are beginning to take rural job creation seriously. In March, the Association of Washington Business hosted its first Rural Jobs Summit, a one-day gathering of elected officials, rural employers and economic development officials from every corner of the state.

“We’re all in this together, and I thought this was a great step,” said Sen. Maralyn Chase, a Democrat from Shoreline, said after the March event.

It was encouraging that a senator from Shoreline gave up part of a weekend to attend a summit focused on rural job creation. In fact, there was so much energy in the room that everyone agreed to follow-up with another, lengthier discussion.

So, in late October, AWB will host the second Rural Jobs Summit, a two-day event at Big Bend Community College. There is strong interest in the event, with lawmakers from both parties — and diverse parts of the state — planning to attend.

It’s not clear exactly what kind of solutions will come from the discussions, but it’s likely they will include infrastructure, workforce, and competitive tax and regulatory policies. These are building blocks for economic success in rural and urban communities alike.

In today’s economy, every region needs an efficient transportation network, reliable, high-speed broadband, a skilled and educated workforce, sensible regulations and a competitive tax structure.

And everyone needs water. That’s why it’s likely that part of the summit will focus on the need for a legislative fix to the so-called Hirst ruling, the state Supreme Court ruling that’s jeopardizing the ability of rural and suburban property owners to get permits for new wells.

Without water, building activity stalls — hurting the economy. A recent study by the Building Industry Association of Washington estimated the Hirst decision could cost the state $6.9 billion annually in lost economic activity and cost as many as 9,300 jobs, predominately in rural areas.

Any discussion of improving the rural economy must include a permanent fix for the Hirst decision. The Legislature’s failure to fix Hirst during the regular session and any of the three special sessions was a missed opportunity to help Washington’s rural economy.

Another missed opportunity was the governor’s veto of the manufacturing tax relief that lawmakers approved with bipartisan supermajorities in both the House and Senate. The tax relief would have reduced the business and occupation tax for small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, helping them make needed investments in their operations and contribute to a healthy economy.

It’s clear that bridging the urban-rural economic divide will take a committed, long-term effort from elected officials, employers, community leaders and others.

AWB is ready to help build that bridge.

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