Baseball analogies were flying at the 2017 Economic Forecast Summit at Little Creek Casino. Grays Harbor County hit a home run in attracting wholesale giant Overstock.com; Lewis County has earned base hits with its consistent growth; and Pacific County considers itself a “farm team.”
The sports comparisons were part of a panel of economic development leaders from Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor, Pacific and Thurston counties who provided economic snapshots of their respective regions and a look ahead at 2018. Business Examiner CEO Jeff Rounce facilitated.
In Mason County, interim Economic Development Council Executive Director Jim Thomas described Shelton as today’s hot spot and Belfair as tomorrow’s. “We’re getting a lot of pressure from Kitsap County for additional housing,” says Thomas. An updated and streamlined Comprehensive Plan should allow greater potential for development. In 2018, the county will focus on tourism and hospitality. “For a county like Mason, it’s important to have an integrated and diversified approach to economic development,” Thomas contends. “We’re the gateway to the Olympics and the San Juan Islands and home to a lot of motor sports.” One of his goals is to bring a hotel to the county’s south side, a potential that is currently being explored.
In Pacific County, workforce fluctuates with the seasons, since many jobs are based in resource management or tourism. Economic Development Director Jim Sayce notes that automation is already changing the face of industries like timber and dairy, increasing the need for collaboration with Grays Harbor College to prepare a workforce that can meet the needs of business. “We have two satellite colleges in our county and we’re using IT to communicate more,” says Sayce. “The internet lifeline represents the wave of the future.” One goal is to attract more home-based entrepreneurs from out of state who can grow the local economy. In 2018, the county will work to expand the tourism season through connecting visitors with local resources, allowing local businesses to enter the summer season with a financial head start.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Lewis County has hit its lowest numbers since 1990 at 5.4% according to Economic Development Director Matt Matayoshi. A continuing demand for skilled workers has led to new programs at Centralia College, including the only Mechatronics program on the west coast and a four-year diesel technology degree. The county is becoming a transportation hub, with three new trucking companies creating facilities there within the past year. In 2018 the focus on industrial development will continue but the county also plans to encourage entrepreneurship, says Matayoshi. “There are great opportunities here for people who have ideas.”
Qualified workforce was also a concern in Grays Harbor County, particularly after Overstock.com moved in. Economic Development Director Dru Garson says the fears proved unfounded; of the 150 people the company initially hired, 141 were from the county, due in part to support from Grays Harbor Community College, Workforce Development Center and Thurston County Economic Development Council Executive Director Michael Cade. The number of employees has since doubled and will continue to grow next year.
2018 will see the expansion of a popular local event, the Hood to Coast relay, which began with 350 teams of six people and is expected to attract 500 teams next year. Each out-of-town guest is projected to bring $375 to the county.
Further inland, economic growth continues in Thurston County, where the leading indicator reached 118.12 as of October, more than 13 points higher than pre-recession levels. The county has continued to diversify, says Cade, and the private sector has overtaken the state as the largest producer of jobs in the region. Through the Procurement Technical Assistant Center (PTAC), the county has brought in $1 billion worth of government contracts for the state of Washington in the past year. IT, construction, and the health care sector all continue to grow.
In the year ahead, the EDC will focus on the Center for Business and Innovation and the development of a Makerspace in conjunction with South Puget Sound Community College. “It will be a place where people can test prototypes and do pilot projects,” says Cade. Another new project is a collaborative effort between the EDC and The Evergreen State College to develop a shared workspace location in downtown Olympia.