Guest opinion: Working together to revitalize timber and farm country

Here in timber and farm country, we must team up and work together to revitalize our small towns and communities so that our children and grandchildren can have a bright future.

There’s no magic bullet, no single solution to boosting our economy in communities like Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Forks and Port Angeles.

Recently, Representatives Brian Blake, Steve Tharinger and I convened a Rural Development Listening Summit in Grays Harbor. It was our turn to listen as business people, educators, local elected officials and health care professionals shared their struggles and hopes for the region.

What became abundantly clear was the intersection of the issues:

• Businesses need to attract quality employees, so our colleges and K-12 system must provide job skills and training that meet that demand. Our medical system can also treating those hindered by the opioid epidemic and reduce the high costs of that problem.

• Our hospitals have challenges finding doctors and nurses who will live in our rural communities. Their families want quality schools. They want access to professional childcare, currently served by graduates of the Peninsula College Early Learning Program and soon to be provided by Grays Harbor College from their new program.

• And the $500 million seafood industry that provides 2,000 jobs in the local economy relies on the Port, our roads and other infrastructure that the government helps to maintain and expand, a key need as Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson emphasized.

We heard loud and clear, do not be entirely dependent on a single industry. Timber, seafood, tourism, public development, ports—all of the economic engines throughout the 19th and 24th Districts need to be strong, because you can’t predict when one sector might go through a boom or bust.

Like the way wine has revitalized Walla Walla, innovation can work here on the Olympic Peninsula also. We have the opportunity to be a leader in cross-laminated timber, which is what the Gateway Center in Aberdeen will be constructed with and what we’ve used to build elementary school classrooms around the state, including in the 24th Legislative District.

Cooperation is key

Making that happen will take cooperation between timber companies, local colleges, loggers, architects and builders. The rewards could be enormous—with the side benefit of making forest-thinning projects profitable, creating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in the woods while reducing the danger of wildfires.

Public infrastructure is an asset. Our ports are a great economic engine. The Port of Grays Harbor is the nearest deep-water port to Pacific trading partners and it’s an increasing source of family wage jobs and innovative businesses. Creating more jobs through our ports means investing in the infrastructure that keeps them going. That includes dredging, rail lines, highways and bridges.

On the state level, it means fighting for transportation and construction budgets to make those investments and working with our members of Congress to secure federal funding.

Quality of life matters. We need to continue investing in public education, safe and drug free streets, rural broadband internet, affordable health care, workforce training and quality childcare.

These are basic fundamentals that people expect today from their government. Professionals and business owners check for those things before they move or invest into our rural communities.

While we’re blessed not to have the traffic gridlock and high housing prices of the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett area, timber and farm country still struggle with some of these basics needs. We heard about the doctor shortage in rural Washington and the need for affordable childcare—because if working moms and dads can’t find a safe place for their young kids they can’t work. We need to find solutions for every working family.

The first step was to hear each other as we did at the listening session. I spent my first session as a state representative listening to lawmakers from both parties and I learned a lot about what has worked, what is working and what we need to make work in rural Washington by listening to others.

The attendance of a dozen of my Democratic colleagues from urban and suburban areas of the state at the listening tour further gives me confidence of the changes we can make.

The next step is us all working together — Republicans and Democrats from timber, farm and port towns to urban cities and suburbs — to restore the American dream of thriving small towns around our great state of Washington.

Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) represents the 24thLegislative District, which includes large portions of Grays Harbor. He previously served as a law enforcement officer and as a Clallam County commissioner.