Grays Harbor County shares its name with a shallow bay, but its rich history and economic growth opportunities run deep.
With its sandy beaches, lush forests, and abundant waterways, the Southwest Washington county is a picturesque home for year-round residents and an attractive retreat for visitors. But its lure doesn’t stop there. Add in its low cost of living, convenient access to Seattle and Portland, and strength in such industries as food production, shipbuilding, tourism, and healthcare, and many believe Grays Harbor County is in the midst of a robust transformation.
“I think Grays Harbor has some tremendous opportunities within our county. We have a low cost of living, we have affordable housing and real estate, we have vacant commercial investment properties, and we also offer phenomenal quality of life,” said Dru Garson, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor, which functions as both a regional chamber of commerce and economic development council. “We think that as we progress through the years, our county is going to become more and more of an attractive option for folks.”
Cycles of booms and busts have been the pattern for the county since its establishment more than 160 years ago. Over the years, for instance, it has weathered a decline in the wood-products industry — logging, milling, and pulp manufacturing — and fishing suffered from depleted runs. Unemployment in Grays Harbor hovered at double the state average for the last three decades of the 20th century.
But by the turn of the 21st century, new growth opportunities began to emerge. The county, once known as the “Lumber Capital of the World,” was beginning a new chapter. Take, for instance, the opening of Quinault Indian Tribe’s Quinault Beach Resort and Casino in 2000, and the 2004 establishment of the resort community of Seabrook.
Today, timber and wood products still make up part of the local manufacturing base, as does the long-standing tradition of shipbuilding, and food production. In fact, the county boasts a number of large food-processing companies, including Ocean Spray Cranberries and Washington Crab Producers, thanks to an abundance of locally produced cranberries and commercial fishing.
Meanwhile, the healthcare sector is gaining significant strength. Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma, for example, recently celebrated the completion of a new Wellness Center — a 60,000-square-foot facility that features three floors dedicated to preventative medicine, including a third-floor primary-care suite, outpatient therapy services, lab, and diagnostic imaging services. There’s also an expanded café, pharmacy, several community conference and education rooms, a rock-climbing wall, outdoor plaza, community fitness trail with outdoor exercise equipment, and playground.
In McCleary, in the eastern part of the county nearest to Olympia, Telecare, with the support of Great Rivers Behavioral Health Organization, recently celebrated the opening of the Mark Reed Evaluation and Treatment Center. The 16-bed facility is designed to provide recovery-centered inpatient care for individuals experiencing an acute behavioral health crisis. And, in July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially announced that Summit Pacific Medical Center and Grays Harbor Public Hospital District No. 1 have received nearly $750,000 to start a residency program.
“About half of the residents that are in (a residency program) actually stay and practice medicine in the community after graduation. So, that’s a strategy that Summit Pacific Medical Center is definitely looking at in attracting healthcare professionals into the area, getting them engrained within the community, and ideally having them move into the area,” Garson said.
West of McCleary, at Satsop, is a burgeoning business park that’s located on the site of a couple mothballed nuclear power cooling towers. Today, the infrastructure-filled site is home to several businesses and surrounded by plenty of developable land.
Then there’s tourism. Given the scenic landscape and abundance of outdoor activities, it comes as no surprise that tourism is a major industry that is continually growing within Grays Harbor. In fact, Grays Harbor County experienced a 6 percent overall boost in hotel and motel tax revenues in 2018.
Helping to fuel the rise in tourism, and new business growth, are such coastal developments as Seabrook. Seabrook has grown to a community of more than 400 homes, over half of which are vacation rentals that provide year-round accommodation options for overnight guests.
Within Seabrook, there are currently more than a dozen owner-operated shops and restaurants (with more to come), 17 parks, a town hall, and countless amenities. With expansion still underway, Market Street is slated to create a hub of nearly 50,000 square feet of retail in Seabrook’s downtown core.
But Seabrook is just a taste of the beauty and charm that Grays Harbor County has to offer. Home to more than 72,000 people, it offers more than 55 miles of open ocean beaches.
The coast provides tourists the opportunity to enjoy a variety of boating activities, including deep-sea fishing and gray whale watching, and is home to some of the best razor clam digging on the West Coast. Outdoor enthusiasts also can enjoy miles of hiking and biking trails, bird watching, and so much more.
“In the future, people are going to look back at this time in Grays Harbor and see what an opportunity it is given, if you just look at the rest of the Pacific coastline and all of the developments we have seen south of here, specifically Oregon and California,” said Grant Jones, director of business development for Greater Grays Harbor. “We represent one of the last bastions of the Pacific coastline that’s ripe for development and that has very affordable land prices. It is inevitable that you’ll see that development in the future.”