By Vicki Hillhouse, January 30, 2014, Walla Walla Union Bulletin
A new wine distribution hub opened, a homegrown bow manufacturer got new life, and air service remained on solid ground in 2013. But despite major efforts to retain businesses last year, Walla Walla hit a six-year low in the number of jobs offered in the community.
Walla Walla County ended the year with an average of 27,982 jobs throughout the year — 529 fewer than it averaged in 2012, according to figures from the Washington State Employment Security Department. The figure was higher than the average monthly labor force of 30,030 workers, the year-end numbers showed.
The figures underscore the need to recruit more business in the community, Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz told a group of business leaders this week at the agency’s first Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting of the year.
“That is a dismal chart,” he said of the graph handed out to about 60 people in attendance Tuesday at the Walla Walla Regional Airport conference room. “I lose sleep over that chart.
“We will continue to work to try to grow jobs in the Walla Walla Valley.”
Despite openings of a number of new businesses, including the $20 million Railex Wine Services Distribution Center in Wallula last April, the number of jobs created didn’t match the number of positions lost with downsizing and closures at other businesses.
Among the closures: local bindery HF Group, Hastings and Gilbert Auto Group.
Kuntz said the Port has no shortage of interest from companies wanting to expand. However, much of the area where they’re looking is in western Walla Walla County, which sits closer to the border of neighboring Franklin and Umatilla counties. The majority of workers at the existing Wallula plants, including Tyson Fresh Meats, Railex and Boise Inc., he said come from those other communities.
“We’ll cash the property tax checks but that’s not providing employment in Walla Walla County,” he said.
The trend is a common one as communities find their footing in difficult economic times, said Port Economic Development Director Paul Gerola. He said communities across the region and country are struggling to solve the same problem.
Consequently, retention efforts have averted losses that had the potential to be even worse.
“We’ve had a lot of saves in this community,” Kuntz added.
He pointed to the Port’s effort to secure a $250,000 Small Community Air Service Development Grant from the federal Department of Transportation for a two-year strategic marketing and advertising campaign to promote the airline and boost numbers.
“Alaska is about as strong as they’ve ever been in this market,” Kuntz said.
The Port also stepped in last year when it looked like Martin Archery, a globally known company whose founder died last year, might shutter. The agency purchased the property for $1.3 million, and leased it back to a private equity firm that has taken the business from six employees back up to near 40.
Added to lobbying efforts in recent years to save jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary and Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center, Kuntz said the role of the Port has helped protect the community from much deeper losses.
“For a small rural community, if you look at what’s being done by all of our partners, it’s a list I think we can be proud of,” he said.
Aside from the opening of the Railex wine hub, other new businesses either opening or expanding at Port properties in 2013 include Palencia Wine Company and Burwood Brewery at the Port’s winery incubator facility, wine and painting business Brushes N Brix at the airport property, Chris Johnson Plumbing, Dunham Cellars Winery, and East-Automation.
Kuntz said the agency received an unprecedented amount of feedback from Economic Development Advisory Committee attendees on its 2014 Economic Development Plan. The plan will be presented to Port of Walla Walla commissioners Feb. 13 for formal approval.
In it the Port’s goal is to “retain and create living wage jobs” that provide a target wage starting at $12.50 per hour with benefits. Core elements of the plan include: small business development; retention/expansion of existing businesses; business recruitment, marketing and advertising; site and infrastructure development; economic profiling; and economic development advocacy.
Kuntz said others in addition to goals already laid out, others suggested the Port focus on health care and social assistance, particularly with implementation of the Affordable Care Act; support local educational institutions on program and facility development; work with fiber optic companies on infrastructure improvements; participate in the Mill Creek Channel rehabilitation project; support additional parking improvements downtown; and continue to spread the word on economic development updates and maintain indicators.
Last year the agency met with 34 businesses; opened the Waitsburg Business Park; completed the third phase of general aviation ramp rehabilation work; and continued with the development of a new sewer system in Burbank.
One of the agency’s latest infrastructure projects is construction of another rail line at more than $2 million at Railex. The additional line is expected to bump the produce train’s number of departing trips to east coast markets to four per week.