At the same time Centralia planners were dealing recently with the water and sewer needs of a chicken- processing plant that could employ hundreds of people, Lewis County Sheriff’s deputies were arresting an anti-government activist after an armed standoff over his septic tank.

The two developments, while not necessarily related, illustrate some of the dilemmas facing Centralia, Chehalis and the rest of Lewis County.

There are big decisions to be made and old traditions to uphold in a county where economic development meets frontier individualism.

Lewis County has been pigeonholed for years by the Hamilton Farms billboard sign, its blunt, barbed political messages aimed directly at passing motorists on Interstate-5 near Chehalis. The city’s history includes a deadly street battle between rival political factions on Armistice Day 1919.

Among the area’s current inhabitants are a loosely organized cadre of political dissidents sharing the same anti-government sentiment as the gentleman with the septic tank dispute.

Yet the biggest problem facing Lewis County is not its politics but its weather. The floods of November 1995 and February 1996 devastated Centralia, ravaged the Chehalis River Valley and wreaked havoc on wide portions elsewhere in the county. The floods closed I-5, wiped out small roads and generally caused a multi-million-dollar mess.

County commissioners, the cities, the state and various ad hoc commissions and boards spend considerable time and money dealing with flood issues. Gauges and other warning devices that measure the depth of river water have been installed since the last major floods and dikes have been reinforced.

Yet politics and weather aren’t the only topics of conversation in the Twin Cities.

The Centralia Steam Plant

Operated by PacificCorp., the electrical generating plant northeast of Centralia often pops up in the lists of “worst polluters.” The 1997 Legislature passed a tax-incentive and financing package to install air pollution control devices. The legislators included a provision that the plant continue using locally mined coal, which protects several hundred jobs. PacificCorp, which employs 750, is the county’s largest employer.

Local legislators had hoped Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt would accept an invitation to speak at the bill-signing ceremony at the plant in Centralia last May. Babbitt didn’t show, but Gov. Gary Locke enthusiastically signed the bill, which had been singled out by President Clinton during a 1996 campaign visit as an example of investing in the environment.

The Southwest Washington Air Pollution Control Authority is now reviewing specific proposals on which pieces of equipment at the plant can be expected to achieve “reasonably attainable” reductions of carbon dioxide emissions.

Scrubbers alone, which are needed to purify smoke being pumped into the sky above the area, will cost millions of dollars to purchase and install.

Forests

Lewis County wants its forest lands back—and that effort could change the way state-owned trees are harvested in the county.

Lewis County has the 10th largest tract of state-owned land at 110,400 acres. The biggest chunk—50,471 acres —benefits basic education. here are about 9,000 acres in the capital trust and 3,600 in the scientific school trust.

The remainder of the state forest lands, about 40,000 acres, is in a classification called the Forest Board Transfer Trust. Dating back to statehood, these tracts originally belonged to the counties. But in the 1920s and ’30s, after the trees had been clear-cut, the counties unloaded them on the state Forest Board. Years passed, and the Forest Board became the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). More years passed, and several counties including Lewis now want the forest land back. That’s because the Forest Board Transfer Trust is once more full of valuable timber.

“Lewis County has been making a lot of noise about this,” says Sandy Rudnick of the DNR.

Under current DNR policies, the Forest Board Transfer Trust is a self-supporting fund that distributes funds to junior taxing districts, based on the amount of Forest Board Transfer Trust land in each county. The DNR makes its money by selling the trees on the timber market.

The U.S. Forest Services is a player in the issue because of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest covers much of eastern Lewis County, principally south of the White Pass Highway. In addition, one tip of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest creeps into Lewis County from the north, and part of the Mount Rainier National Park extends inside the Lewis County line as well.

Chickens

Chickens have found a home in Lewis County. The south county town of Winlock claims to have the World’s Largest Egg (it is masonry), plus an annual Egg Day that provides a friendly rivalry with the Cheese Day organizers in nearby Toledo.

Chicken farmers have replaced many of the historic egg producers, and Lewis County now controls 31 percent of the state’s total production of fryers. Some of these chickens are sold live to processors in Oregon, but the majority already go to a Washington processor, Draper Valley Farms of Mount Vernon.

At the moment, Draper Valley has to transport these chickens from Lewis County through about 100 miles of urban freeways. If all goes according to plan, Draper Valley will build a plant at the Port of Centralia’s industrial park.

Talks have been going on for more than a year. Plans include annexation of the site into the city so Centralia City Utilities will provide water, sewer and electric service. The proposed annexation has been in the hearings stage for several months, and the city Planning Commission expects to make its recommendation to the City Council sometime in the near future. Everyone seems confident the commission will recommend in favor of the annexation.

Rebecca Moore at the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce says Draper Valley “is a done deal,” but so far no one has scheduled a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The city must build a sewage treatment plant and upgrade its water-well system to accommodate the addition and already has had to answer concerns voiced by citizens unsure whether they want a chicken plant in their neighborhood.

More jobs

Draper Valley isn’t the only big project for the Twin Cities. Hardel Lumber, which was burned out of its main plant on the Olympia waterfront more than a year ago, has filed for building permits for its new, state-of-the-art plywood and lumber mill. In addition, Boise Cascade has plans for a new plant.

Moore says that when all the projections are added up, the Twin Cities are counting on 5,000 new jobs by 2008.

Tourism

There were 45,000 visitors last year at the two information centers operated by the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce. There’s no further breakdown available as to how many stayed overnight, how many came for the day and how many were just passing through. But separate efforts in Centralia and Chehalis are designed to attract all three types of travelers.

Destination Centralia, the company responsible for the outlet malls and an antique mall in a renovated historical building, gets some tourism funds from the City of Centralia.

The company’s brochures brag of a “factory outlet boom town.” There are 50 stores on both sides of the freeway, interwoven with gas stations, convenience stores and supermarkets, as well as fast food and chain restaurants. For those not inclined to drive, Destination Centralia has a package deal with Amtrack—a van picks up shoppers at the depot and delivers them back there when they’re done.

Brookes Konig, sales manager at Howard Johnson in Chehalis, sees potential for a wider market for tourist dollars. He’s on a committee, Tourism Lewis County, that draws attention to attractions other than shopping.

He points out that Centralia and Chehalis are at the halfway point between Seattle and Portland—in fact, Centralia’s Fort Borst Park is the overnight stopping point for the Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic, an annual event that attracts several thousand bicyclists on the back highways of Western Washington each year.

Next year’s race is being rescheduled from its traditional early June date to mid-July, with fingers crossed that the weather will be better than it has been for recent events.

Konig says Tourism Lewis County is promoting the Twin Cities as the gateway to the coastal beaches and the Cascade Mountains. He’d like to see Seattle residents stopping for the night on their way to White Pass or Mount St. Helens, and Portlanders staying over on their way to the Grays Harbor County beaches.

Konig concedes the Twin Cities needs more attractions if it is to lure more tourists but points to progress—little things, such as an effort by a community theater group to move into the old First Assembly Church on Tower Avenue in Centralia and to the restoration of a steam train that provides rides through the Chehalis Valley, turning back at a siding called Ruth. And investments in softball and soccer fields have made the Twin Cities a regional center for tournaments, he brags.

“We fill up every night for two months during the summer,” Konig says of his hotel. “Tourism can work, and it does.”

“Tourism is growing,” agrees the Chamber’s Moore, “but its still not there yet.”

There is, however, traffic along I-5 and a growing number of businesses linked somehow to the corridor and its travelers. A 24-hour theme restaurant called One Eyed Jack’s opened recently south of Chehalis. A towing company bought a comfortable RV-style van to haul travelers and their dead cars back to either Portland and Seattle. The newest brand-name developments have been a Taco Bell, a Hogi Yogi sub shop and a BP gas station.

The Twin Cities don’t have a convention center, but there is the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds. The fairgrounds are the site for gatherings sort of like conventions—4-H horse competitions, Co-Operative Extension workshops, a business exposition. Most weekends, there are trailers, RVs and trucks in the parking lot for events that usually involve kids as well as their parents. Some events draw mostly from within Lewis County, but a few are regional in scope.

The Lewis County commissioners recently created an autonomous fair board with a mandate to not only rebuild the fairgrounds (they’re old and damaged by floods) but to keep the buildings and arenas booked.

Such efforts are good for business.

By Lew Pumphrey, Business Examiner staff