Lewis County Economic Development Council Executive Director Bill Lotto has credited a host of Lewis County business and labor leaders for securing what he calls family-wage job security for the next 50 years.

“Local private interests brought this dream to reality,” Lotto says. “There’s some well-deserved congratulations going through Lewis County right now.”

He recognized in particular the efforts Bob Gunther of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Buck Hubbert, president of the Industrial Commission.

That dream Lotto refers to is the prospect of industrial development within economically challenged Lewis County. Development will occur on two parcels of land totalling 4,000 acres being set aside under the recently enacted Washington State Industrial Land Bank Bill.

The larger parcel, 3,000 acres, includes land near coal mining operations supplying the Centralia Steam Plant. Another 1,000-acre site lies adjacent to Interstate-5 at the Route 12 exit east to Morton.

“We had wetland issues to contend with, plus power and transportation needs,” says Lotto, adding: “All the site and environmental studies were paid for by the private sector.”

The Industrial Land Bank Bill, passed in 1998, was modeled after a pilot project in Ridgefield. The legislation provided an exception to the state’s Growth Management Act, which was viewed by some as highly restrictive toward rural counties.

The spirit of the GMA, holding growth to within urban boundaries, has proved a reasonable formula for highly developed and populated counties. Yet many argued that the GMA inhibited economic growth in rural counties because it stripped them of their primary appeal to potential manufacturers—large tracts of undeveloped land.

“You can’t bring in an employer if you aren’t allowed to develop the land,” Lotto says.

He applauded the broad base support the Land Bank Bill received from the media, school officials, Congressman Brian Baird, Gov. Gary Locke and state Rep. Richard DeBolt, sponsor of the bill.

DeBolt contends that prior to his legislation, Lewis County had no inventory of zoned industrial land over 60 acres, a weak incentive for attracting large employers. According to EDC officials, seven companies had been forced to locate elsewhere in the past two years because they were unable to secure favorable sites.

Lotto paints a grim picture when discussing Lewis County’s economy over the past quarter century. Though 1970 wages were on a par with all other counties in the state, he says, Lewis County has since seen its workers’ earning power decline by 25 percent.

Lotto says the issue involves more than just jobs and wages.

“We have a tremendous outgoing migration from Lewis County,” he says. “Young people who want decent jobs must go elsewhere. It’s a shame to have to leave your birthplace in order to better yourself.”

The Land Bank is designed to provide choices, he says.

In order to qualify under the state’s restrictions, the two Land Bank parcels had to meet a host of environmental, infrastructure, transportation and other standards.

Rail, electricity, and natural gas sources made the Centralia Steam Plant parcel an ideal choice, Lotto says. Proximity to I-5 made the other parcel an excellent choice as well.

“The Route 12 site is the biggest parcel designated for industry on the I-5 corridor since the Hawk’s Prairie-Weyerhaeuser development created in the 1980s,” says Lotto. “And much of Hawk’s Prairie eventually went residential and commercial.”

Lewis County is holding some high cards for a change, the EDC’s executive director concludes.

“We now have something to offer,” he says, “something to build a future on.”

By Mark Woytowich