The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Michele Smith
The Times 

Stakeholders participation at Port's annual economic development strategy meeting

 

December 24, 2020



DAYTON—The Port of Columbia held the annual Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) stakeholders’ meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The forum gives community stakeholders a chance to discuss projects they are involved in and provide input into the five and ten-year CEDS project list.

Each year, at the end of the meeting, stakeholders are asked to prioritize economic development projects for the community.

Fifty-seven stakeholders attended last week’s CEDS meeting and voted for the projects they believe are the most pressing. The top priority include affordable housing, assisted living housing, Broadband improvement, Touchet Valley Trail and walking paths, and public area ADA accessibility.

“We’ve been conducting this vote as part of our annual economic development exercise for over 20 years, so this is not new and is not meant to be a broad community survey,” said the Port’s Executive Director Jennie Dickinson.

She said the purpose of the exercise is to gather anonymous input and provide information to the people already doing the hard work in the community.

Last year the stakeholders picked Affordable/Senior/Assisted Living housing as their number one choice.

This year, Rachel Elfenbein, Advocacy Coordinator for the Walla Walla Community Council, and Meagan Hayes, City of Dayton Planning and Community Development Director gave stakeholders updates. Elfenbein talked about the Regionwide Affordable Housing (RAH) initiatives for the Cities of Dayton, Waitsburg, Walla Walla, and College Place. The RAH initiative is currently in the advocacy stage, working to convene volunteers throughout the area to serve on implementation taskforce subcommittees.

“The more community participation we have, the stronger our advocacy efforts will be,” she said.

Meagan Hayes discussed steps the City is taking to address housing affordability. The City of Dayton has established an Affordable Housing Commission to direct the City’s efforts.

Columbia County Health System CEO Shane McGuire presented steps the Health System is taking to help people live “safely” in their own homes and what care the Health System can provide to people when they need more than what they can receive in the home.

Public Health Director Martha Lanman said the Friends of the Community Center committee is seeking funding for a feasibility study to assess construction of a pool or a combination pool and community center. She expects the study to be completed in 2021. Stakeholders chose a combined pool and community center as the second priority at last year’s meeting. School Facilities Improvements/Levies/Bonds was the third priority identified by stakeholders last year

Lanman also discussed COVID-19 challenges in the community

Dayton Chamber of Commerce Director Molly Weatherill-Tate gave an update on Dayton Development Task Force and Dayton Chamber activities.

Participants received an update on Columbia Pulp, LLC operations at the Lyons Ferry Pulp Plant near Starbuck from the LLC’s Technical and Quality Control Director, Kristi Kobetich.

Kobetich said the market for products made from straw pulp is strong, and the straw supply is ample. The bondholders have granted operation managers permission to make the material handling process more efficient, which should begin in January.

The pulp company is creating a hiring strategy to safely bring 80 or more employees back to the plant, keeping COVID-19 challenges in mind. Full-scale production should begin in late spring, she said.

Jennie Dickinson provided an update on Port activities. Here are a few highlights from her presentation:

• The Port’s Industrial Park and Blue Mountain Station are at 100-percent capacity.

• Anderson/Perry & Associates is nearing 30-percent completion on the Touchet Valley Trail’s design stage, and progress will be shared with the public in February or March.

• The Port continues to seek funding from the state legislature for the rehabilitation of the Columbia-Walla Walla (CWW) railroad. It is working to help Paul Didelius, the rail operator, gain the ability to ship grain from the county to the Port Kelly terminal at Wallula.

• The Port will continue its efforts to get the Broadband infrastructure funded. Another round of funding will be available in the summer of 2021.

Dickinson said 2020 has been dominated by the COVID response and helping individual businesses.

“The biggest thing we did this year, and the most time consuming is the small business grants.”

In conjunction with a local review committee, the Port facilitated pass-through grant funding to 50 businesses. The funding came from four different sources for a total of $416,152.

Dickinson provided some economic indicators for Columbia County.

• Since the beginning of the COVID-19 situation, small businesses are down by one or two employees. Eating establishments have had employment going up and down, depending on restrictions.

• The Dayton School District is now down to about 29 employees, she said.

• Ag-related and utility-related businesses appear to have been unaffected by unemployment.

• According to the state, the county unemployment rate was 4.7-percent in October.

• The top taxpayers are Columbia Pulp LLC and the wind farms owned and operated by PGE, PacifiCorp, and Puget Sound Energy, helping keep the tax rate low. The median hourly wage increased with construction at the wind farms.

• Assessed value has now reached over a billion dollars.

• The agriculture sector is providing economic stability, and the housing market is strong.

• Before the pandemic, the poverty rate had been trending in a positive direction. Now, 17-percent of households are participating in the state’s food assistance program.

“Many of the economic indicators are headed in the right direction, so things are good here for the most part. The downtown and retail sector continues to struggle, and it is difficult to see what we can do to help it,” Dickinson said.

 

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