It’s been more than a decade since the Great Recession devastated financial markets, leaving in its wake millions of people across the country who lost their jobs and homes.

Unfortunately, Lewis County residents were no exception. Not one to cower in defeat — as evidenced by its rich history — the county today is enjoying renewed optimism and economic growth.

“The recession was difficult on the Lewis County economy, as nonfarm payrolls dropped and double-digit unemployment rates were the rule rather than the exception”, wrote Jim Vleming, regional labor economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department, in his Lewis County profile last updated in 2019. “Now, nearly 10 years removed from the downturn, nonfarm payrolls are expanding, and the unemployment rates in the county are at historic lows. Taxable sales for all industries are up over 31 percent since 2010.”

In fact, the annual average unemployment in Lewis County has been declining since the 13.3 percent rate posted in 2009, Vleming noted. As of November 2019, unemployment rates in the county stood at 6.2 percent, according to the agency.

Given ongoing development and efforts to diversify the local economy, Lewis County’s resurgence shows little signs of slowing.

Matt Matayoshi, executive director of the Lewis Economic Development Council. Photo by Jeff Hobson

“We are looking to diversify our economy and always looking to attract industries that might pay a little bit more,” said Matt Matayoshi, executive director of the Lewis Economic Development Council, citing industries related to life sciences and technology as examples.

Once known for its strength in logging and milling, today the county’s largest industry sector is healthcare and social assistance, employing more than 4,500 workers. This is followed by retail trade and manufacturing, according to data provided by the Lewis EDC.

One of the more significant economic developments in the works is Benaroya Pacific Northwest Regional Logistics Center, a planned 320-acre industrial park in Winlock. The site, which is strategically located adjacent to Interstate 5 and State Routes 12 and 505 interchanges, features up to 5 million-square-foot, build-to-suit buildings and sites available for sale.

Rendering of the Benaroya Pacific Northwest Regional Logistics Center, a 320-acre industrial park to be completed in Winlock. Rendering courtesy the Benaroya Company

Occupants of the planned industrial park would neighbor several major existing distribution centers, including facilities for Michaels, Fred Meyer, and Lowe’s. And in February 2019, food wholesaler UNFI announced plans to optimize its distribution center network, which involved consolidating five distribution centers into a new 1.15 million-square-foot leased facility in Centralia.

In December, commercial real estate advisory firm Newmark Knight Frank announced the sale of the UNFI facility to Exeter Property Group — representing “the largest single asset sale in the Pacific Northwest in 2019,” noted Newmark Knight Frank.

“As its name indicates, Centralia provides a tremendous centralized distribution locale for logistics tenants like UNFI who are looking to more efficiently and effectively distribute products to customers from Portland to Seattle, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. This net leased property represents an ideal long-term hold for Exeter,” said Kevin Shannon, NKF co-head, U.S. capital markets, in a statement announcing the deal.

Agriculture, however, is an important sector that should not be overlooked. From farm stands, to cheese shops, to seasonal farmers markets, there are a variety of ways to enjoy the agritourism that Lewis County has to offer.

A few examples include the Willapa Hills Creamery near Doty, which has been handcrafting award-winning artisan cheese since 2008; Aldrich Berry Farm & Nursery in Mossyrock, which was the first commercial blueberry operation in Lewis County; and Olequa Farm in Winlock, which provides a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and berries to the local community and even offers home deliveries.

Resources being poured into recreation and education also are fueling the county’s growth and attraction. Take, for instance, the renovated Penny Playground and the Recreation Park Baseball Field Complex in Chehalis.

“The new state-of-the-art Penny Playground will become the most significant ADA park in the region. And the renovation of the four Rec Park ballfields and sports complex provides quality playing fields for our teams and the return of youth sports tourism to Chehalis. This will bring an anticipated annual revenue of $1 million to the city,” the Chehalis Foundation said in a recent post on its website. The foundation noted that both projects are scheduled to be completed this spring.

Separately, the foundation began partnering in 2013 with the Chehalis School District on the Student Achievement Initiative to help improve education in every classroom and further prepare students for college and careers. “The goals include increasing the percent of Chehalis students going on to earn college degrees from 20 percent to 60 percent by 2024,” the foundation noted.

These are, obviously, just a few examples of the changes sweeping across Lewis County.

“Our hope is that the last 15 years of investment in Centralia College, the K-12 system, and parks and facilities will attract more diversification for our economy and make it more livable and benefit our community members, and then also position us for the next opportunity, whether that be technology-based or life sciences or some other sector to be determined,” Matayoshi said.