Matt Matayoshi
Photo by Jeff Hobson

Stroll historic downtowns, ride a steam train, explore parks and wilderness areas, or go antique shopping. The Centralia-Chehalis area, and Lewis County in general, has long had something for everyone to do recreationally, regardless of age or interest. 

And now its growing and diversifying business sector is no exception.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here, whether it be transportation-related business or the medical field, there are lots of things happening here in Lewis County,” said Matt Matayoshi, executive director of the Lewis Economic Development Council.

Nestled nearly halfway between the Seattle and Portland metro areas and the Pacific Coast and Cascade Mountains, the communities — once known for their dominance of the logging, farming, and mining sectors — are proving to be a great place for modern-day commerce.

One of the more significant economic developments of late is the construction of the new UNFI distribution center in Centralia. In February, the food wholesaler announced plans to optimize its distribution center network, which involves consolidating five distribution centers into a new, 1.2 million-square-foot facility in Centralia. In addition, UNFI will expand its Ridgefield facility by 541,000 square feet, to a total of nearly 800,000 square feet. Both the Centralia and Ridgefield facilities are expected to be fully operational for the second half of 2019.

Once completed, UNFI said it plans to close its Tacoma, Portland, and Auburn warehouses, as well as reduce dependency on outside storage and third-party logistics services.

In Chehalis, the Port of Chehalis is building a 20,000-square-foot industrial building in the Chehalis Industrial Park. It is expected to be finished before the end of the year, and marks the first new building constructed by the Port in two decades. The new facility, which will be divided into multiple spaces — each serving a different small-business tenant — will be the newest and most modern industrial space available in Lewis County, the EDC said.

The Port of Centralia completed approval of a conceptual site plan for a new 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to be occupied by The Truss Company, which makes engineered wood roof and floor trusses.

These are just a few examples of new business development within the area. And, as evidenced by the work of the Lewis EDC, local officials are hoping for even greater economic growth and diversification in the years ahead. 

That’s where Smart Tank comes in.

Looking to cultivate an entrepreneurship culture, the Lewis EDC recently hosted, in cooperation with business incubator and accelerator Moonshot at NACET, its second annual Smart Tank competition. The pitch event is modeled after the television show Shark Tank and is designed to identify and strengthen Lewis County’s entrepreneurial sector.

“Centralia and Chehalis are smaller communities set in a beautiful natural location with access to major cities less than two hours away,” said Moonshot president and CEO Scott Hathcock.

“These are places that entrepreneurs, who can work from anywhere, seek out because of the high quality of life. And that makes this effort more than just encouraging for homegrown entrepreneurs; it’s about attracting new businesses to the region as well.”

In addition to Smart Tank, Lewis EDC and Moonshot also meet with entrepreneurs one-on-one to offer advice and assistance on everything from securing product patents, to hiring sales representatives, branding, and boosting marketing. They also work to provide entrepreneurs with connections to potential investors and business leaders.

“We have quite a network of people that help the startups get going,” Matayoshi said.

The area also is home to Centralia College, which is looking to construct a new “flexible trades building” with grant money from the Centralia Coal Transition Grants Economic & Community Development Board. The 12,000-square-foot facility will expand the college’s ability to train on-demand in response to industry needs, and will enhance the college’s partnership with local and regional manufacturers.

“This new facility gives Centralia College the ability to extend our existing partnerships with local industry, with potential new employers coming to the area, and with area high schools. We can build up the local workforce and respond quickly to new training needs,” said Bob Mohrbacher, the college’s president.

Plans also are in the works for Centralia College to create a mobile classroom for career and technical training that will take simulators and equipment to local high schools. The goal is to expose students to the college’s trades programs, local industry needs, and various career opportunities.

Clearly, the growth, development, and opportunities within the Centralia-Chehalis area are proving that big things can come in smaller packages.