Tri-Citians fret loss of plant could cost other jobs

June 29, 2008 

The Tri-Cities' leading economic development recruiter says the community will need much more help from the governor's office if it hopes to attract major employers like the Areva uranium enrichment plant that was lost to Idaho in May.

"I don't think we'll win any of these projects without more activity from the state's chief elected officer," said Carl Adrian, chief executive officer of the Tri-City Development Council.

The $2 billion Areva facility, a juicy economic development plum, would have employed at least 400 with an annual payroll near $30 million.

"Most often the state is all over these things - the governor is all over these things," Adrian said. "In most other states, on projects of this size the governors get to be on a first-name basis with the company executives."

Gov. Chris Gregoire placed just one call to Areva to discuss the project - and more than six months after she personally decided to cancel a call.

Her staff began attempting to arrange a second conversation with Areva at the 11th hour after much prodding from Tri-Citians, but that call was not returned before Areva announced the plant would be built elsewhere.

"We would have hoped to see more direct involvement," said Mike Lawrence, a friend of Gregoire dating back two decades to when they helped negotiate Hanford's legally binding cleanup pact when he was manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Richland office and she was state Ecology Department director.

Kennewick's Fran Forgette, whom Gregoire appointed to the Washington State University Board of Regents, wrote to Gregoire's office asking for her personal involvement. So did Lura Powell, a former Pacific Northwest National Laboratory director whom Gregoire appointed to a state board overseeing life sciences grants.

And Adrian, serving as a liaison between Areva and the governor's office, wrote the office frequently, according to e-mail and other communications obtained by the Herald through a public records request.

"Do I sound desperate?" Adrian asked in one plea for help.

Marc Baldwin, Gregoire's economic development policy adviser and lead staffer on the Areva issue, replied that his boss did call Areva once and said frequent Tri-City requests for the governor's involvement became "extremely difficult to meet."

Lawrence, who talked with Gregoire after Areva announced its plans to build the uranium enrichment plant in Idaho, is somewhat sympathetic to the governor's situation. But in a recent interview he reiterated a complaint he first reported to the governor's office in November.

"I think it would have been good if we had had the opportunity to meet face to face," Lawrence said, acknowledging the governor's busy schedule. "There was always an intermediary. I'm not certain what may have got lost in translation."

Lawrence said he doesn't believe the long Tri-City relationship with Gregoire has been tarnished and that "she still has a lot of interest in the Tri-Cities."

And she may hear about Areva again. Her office was repeatedly warned that Areva's fuel fabrication plant in Richland could be moved if another state was selected for the uranium enriching gas centrifuge project - which would be a major hit to the Tri-Cities' economy.

"The Areva site team hinted that to us," Adrian said. He previously had reported to the governor's office having seen internal Areva e-mail to that effect.

As one of the Tri-Cities' top employers, the facility is home to more than 600 jobs and an annual payroll of nearly $50 million.

"Since the decision has been made, Areva has been very careful," Adrian said. "They have told us there is no plan to move that facility."

But if there were such a plan, he doesn't expect Areva would say so.

"I sincerely think that is not an issue or at least not until the gas centrifuge is built" in Idaho, said TRIDEC's Gary Petersen, who has worked closely with the company.

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