Rural Washington needs prosperity, too: Column
By Don C. Brunell
While Seattle is growing rapidly, our rural areas continue to struggle. They don’t have the corporate giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing creating jobs and economic opportunities. Farms are predominantly family-owned.
Today, there is a rejuvenated effort to bring prosperity to Washington’s rural communities. While agriculture is the largest sector, timber, manufacturing, high tech and energy provide opportunities as well.
Rural jobs and economic revitalization are national in scope.
Writing in The Daily Yonder, Bill Bishop reports on the markedly different employment patterns in the nation’s urban and rural counties. (The Daily Yonder is published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies.)
Bishop found that nearly half of the nation’s rural counties lost jobs over the last four years (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
“The U.S. has been adding jobs since the beginning of President Obama’s second term. In all, there were 8.2 million more jobs in 2015 than four years earlier. But 96.5 percent of that gain has been in the cities. Rural counties and micropolitan counties (those with towns between 10,000 and 50,000 people) added just 280,000 jobs between 2011 and 2015.”
Opportunity Washington, a business coalition led by the Association of Washington Business and the Washington Roundtable, added with its strong base in trade, transportation, manufacturing, technology, health care and financial services, the Seattle metro area continues to drive the state economy, but the balance of the state roughly mirrors the U.S. average.
“This divergence in income clearly demonstrates the need for policies designed to create new and greater opportunities for all Washingtonians, regardless of where they live,” Opportunity Washington concluded.
The Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based think tank, found agriculture accounted for $51 billion or 13 percent of our state’s economic activity in 2015. It added that 160,000 jobs were tied to agriculture, which was more than Boeing and Microsoft combined.
In 2014, WPC reported, our state exported $16 billion worth of food and agriculture.
While agriculture is the cornerstone of the state’s rural economy, opportunities to reinvigorate our timber industry have been crippled by lack of federal and state timber sales and threatened by vast wildfires.
In late October, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz released a 20-year plan to reduce the number of wildfires and improve the health of 1.25 million acres of forest land in Eastern Washington that includes logging and thinning.
Hopefully, her agency will look at the Olympic Peninsula between Aberdeen and Forks for a similar initiative in state-owned forests.
George W. Bush proposed a healthy forests initiative early in his presidency that included removal of wildfire fuels, creating jobs in the timber industry, and utilizing wood that would have burned in forest fires. It was quickly shot down by opponents who wanted to leave the forests in their natural condition.
Alex McGregor, who runs a 138-year-old family agriculture business, told AWB’s Rural Jobs Summit in Moses Lake there are new opportunities for rural areas.
State leaders need to focus on reducing the mountains of conflicting, confusing and overlapping regulations. Towns and counties cannot afford to administer them, and they overwhelm farmers, processors and manufacturers. Consequently, nothing happens.
He added that state manufacturing tax rates ought to apply to all manufacturers, state funding for roads, bridges and other infrastructure need rural emphasis, and support for education and training are essential for rural communities.
Finally, our state elected officials need to be cautious about new sweeping legislative proposals, such as creating carbon taxes. They would have a heavy impact on farms and food processors.
McGregor concluded that he is encouraged about jobs and economic development in Washington because now lawmakers have a renewed sense of their importance.
Don Brunell retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.