There’s long been a debate over whether Thurston County’s economy is stable or simply flat. Dennis Matson, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Thurston County, provided some clues when he observed that despite the county’s peculiar economic history because it houses the state Capitol and numerous government offices, it too will increasingly be affected by broader economic trends.

Matson spoke at a Council economic update luncheon April 7 at Cavanaugh’s at Capitol Lake, which was last known as the Holiday Inn Westwater in Olympia.

As elsewhere, downsizing continues to take place in Thurston County, even among long-standing businesses, he noted. Crown Cork and Seal recently lost 88 manufacturing jobs. Sunset Life lost 105.

But that is offset somewhat by new companies moving in and others getting larger. Giles Paper & Packaging, Spring Air Manufacturing and Mutual Materials are all expanding with new facilities under construction. Most recently, Advanced TelCom Group Inc., begins operations this month with offices in Olympia’s new Rants Group Market Place office building next to Anthony’s Home Port Restaurant and in Tacoma as well.

ATG is installing digital switching platforms and fiber optic transmission systems in Olympia and Tacoma. The company is in the process of hiring about 25 people in all, with an estimated nine in the Olympia office.

The Port of Olympia was certainly not untouched by global trends. Its sole marine terminal tenant, Sunmar, left last October due to a bad economy in the Russian Far East, to which it had been delivering mining and other equipment and supplies.

Without state government, Thurston County would be in the same economic position as distressed neighbors Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor counties, Matson says. And it may begin the resemble its neighbors soon. With the passage of the state’s 601 spending controls already being felt, Thurston’s mainstay of employment will likely not see much growth in the future.

Employment growth has seen a gradual decline in since the 1970s, when annual additions of 400 jobs to the workforce were often seen in a single year. Now that figure is expected to average just 100 a year over the next 20 years. Jobs are expected to grow 1.8 percent in the future, while the population increase is forecast at 2.7 percent.

“Something’s gotta give,” Matson says. “We’re going to have to do more than we’ve done” if the county wishes to continue to grow its economy with its continued population growth.

One thing the Port has done that Matson would like to see imitated often is create public and private partnerships, such as the new Swantown Boatworks facility that opened last month. While the Port collects haulout fees, private businesses offer repair and cleaning services at the marina.

Neil Falkenburg, manager of the West Bay Marina, who first spoke out against the project in its conceptual stages a few years ago because he said the Port should not compete with private marinas, has joined the group of four licensees so far who have signed up to provide services at the Port’s facility. Licensees pay the Port $25 for a license and 15 percent of the revenue from all labor performed.

The new 77-ton Travellift at the Port can haul out boats that other local marinas can’t handle, making it possible for local merchants to take on business they otherwise couldn’t, says Bruce Marshall, Harbormaster.

“It doesn’t make sense for me not to join,” Falkenburg says.

By Kamilla K. McClelland, Business Examiner staff