The five-county Western Washington region that includes Thurston, Lewis, Mason, Grays Harbor, and Pacific counties was firmly in focus on Dec. 5 during The Regional Economic Forecast & Innovation Expo 2019 hosted by the Thurston Economic Development Council at Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound.

The daylong event featured the economic development organizations of each of the five counties and highlighted emerging economic sectors, forecast county trends, and more.

“The five-county region is everything, and yet each county is unique, so it’s important to identify those nuances,” said Jason Robertson of J Robertson & Co., a strategic planning and public communications firm based in Olympia, as he spoke near the beginning of the day on the “PacMtn Industry Analysis Update” report. “We have to develop strategies that will work (collectively and for each individual county).”

To that end, Robertson’s time on stage was spent highlighting the similarities and differences of each county by sharing data from the in-depth report. The data included showing how the area’s industry clusters and economy have changed — and how both also have remained unchanged — over the past seven years since the 2012 report.

Prior to Robertson’s presentation, the day began with a procession, introduction, and song from the Chehalis Tribe. It was followed by presentations, which included one called “Talking Cedar,” given by Chehalis Tribal Enterprises CEO David Burnett about the brewery, distillery, and restaurant development underway in Grand Mound. Talking Cedar also will be its own brand of beer.

A panel discussion – moderated by Josh Dunn of Premier Media Group — featuring the economic development directors of the five represented counties — followed. Directors included Matt Matayoshi (Lewis County), Jim Sayce (Pacific County), Michael Cade (Thurston County), Dru Garson (Grays Harbor), and Jennifer Baria (Mason County).

Each director highlighted his or her county’s current key trends: Economic diversification is hot in Thurston County; vacation rentals and real estate in general are big in Grays Harbor; manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and trucking are going well in Lewis. Real estate, healthcare, and tourism were highlights mentioned by the Mason County director, Baria, and in Pacific County, Sayce said, “housing relocation by retirees” is an important trend he is seeing.

Perhaps surprisingly, childcare for workers also was a key subject of conversation for a couple of directors.

The rest of the morning was comprised of two 45-minute-long breakout sessions, each timeframe offering attendees six options to choose from in various conference rooms located throughout the lodge. Those breakout subjects ran the gamut and included such titles as “Which Came First? The Oyster or the Egg,” “Be Prepared: It’s Not Just for Boy Scouts,” “Innovations in Forestry,” “Save on Taxes by Investing in Your Community,” and “Local Food at a Hospital Near You.” Topics of discussion included social media, craft brewing, virtual reality, emergency preparation, legacy businesses, taxes, sustainability, rural healthcare, and more.

Courtesy Thurston EDC

At the “Innovations in Forestry” session, for example, Gareth Waugh of Port Blakely, Patti Case of Green Diamond Resource Co., and Glenn Cattnach of Weyerhaeuser sat on a panel moderated by Doug Hooks of the Washington Forest Protection Association. The panel’s focus was, as the title of the session would imply, changes in the field of forestry. Hooks first introduced the audience to software called Forwarder Personal Simulator (Simlog), which helps modernize tree harvesting.

Waugh opened the panel with a talk on carbon offsets. One such project is the 10,088-acre Winston Creek Pilot Project in Lewis County near Morton. “Our company has been around a long time, we love forestry, and we want to make sure (the industry remains sustainable),” Waugh said.

“Carbon: It’s in the news daily … everybody wants to put a price on carbon, and ostensibly that’s to help us change our behavior,” Case pointed out, as she made her point for the use of more wood products, particularly due to the renewable aspect of trees. “We can subsidize the heck out of solar and wind, but what about wood?” she asked. “Perhaps the most important thing policymakers can do for us is nothing.”

Cattnach spoke about the growing trend of the use of drones in forestry, thanks in part to drones’ ease of use and relatively low cost. “They are an extension of your forester’s eyes (and legs),” he said.

At the “Creating Places People Want to Be” session, held on the main stage, moderator Nate Burgher of Flowstate Creatives questioned panelists Tracie Schmitt (The Ridge Motorsports Park), Chris Richardson (managing director, Chehalis Tribal Enterprises), and Kate Cox (Discovery Bay & Willapa Hills Trails).

“You don’t have to be an Indian tribe at the casino to be in the tourism business,” Richardson said, speaking of all the other tribal projects either in the works or currently built.

“Our goal is to create a one-stop entertainment platform that when you leave the premises … you’re still talking about it and want to come back again,” Schmitt said of the strategy at The Ridge in Shelton.

Near the end of the day, two awards were presented. The Nancy Payne Award for workforce development was given to SERVPRO of Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties, while Kevin Ekar captured the economic development lifetime achievement J.T. Quigg Award.

Following the awards presentation, the afternoon keynote was delivered by Bill Conerly, a veteran economist and consultant (and also author of the monthly “Businomics” column published in South Sound Business).

As the few hundred event attendees were eating lunch, Conerly spoke on the national and regional economic trends and outlook.

“What are the small things that you can do in your business that might save your organization?” Conerly asked the crowd before diving into his presentation, which focused on plans, risks, and opportunity given several economic factors. “Boring is good when we’re talking about world economic growth.” The U.S. economy forecast is a little less “boring,” he said.

“We are in the tightest job market since 1969,” he explained.

Other key takeaways from Conerly’s presentation included the fact that income is growing faster than spending; housing starts are flat; and the U.S. population growth is declining, with last year being the lowest growth rate in decades. The reasons for the latter included low birth and immigration rates. Such slow population growth, Conerly said, has a widespread impact on the economy.

During downtimes throughout the day, those present were encouraged to visit the booths of the more than 30 on-site vendors, six of which offered end-of-day food and beverage tastings.