Diversity key to ecomomic growth in Walla Walla County

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 3, 2012 

Walla Walla County's unemployment rate has stayed consistently below the state and national average, remaining one of the lowest in the state.

The county's secret appears to be what Tri-City economic developers are aiming for -- diversity.

Jim Kuntz, Port of Walla Walla executive director, said the county can thank its diverse economy for keeping unemployment relatively low.

"No one sector really dominates our economy," he said.

Walla Walla County is the most diverse of the nine counties in the eastern area of the state, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist. That includes Columbia, Garfield, Asotin, Whitman, Lincoln, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.

In September, Walla Walla County had an unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, lower than the Tri-Cities' rate of 8 percent and the state's average rate of 7.7 percent.

That was the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the state during September, just behind Chelan County at 6.3 percent and Douglas County at 6.2 percent. San Juan County had the lowest rate at 5.3 percent.

Walla Walla County only saw a 1 percent job decline during the recession, Suljic said.

Agriculture and health care -- among the major players in Walla Walla County -- did not see job losses because of the recession, Suljic said.

Government workers, including guards at the state prison and public college teachers, make up about 21 percent of the jobs, Kuntz said. Health care is 14 percent, agriculture is 13 percent, manufacturing is 13 percent and retail trade is another 9 percent.

That means any one sector can be down without having a large effect on the county's overall economy, Kuntz said.

And the manufacturers are diverse, with no one type dominating the entire industry in the county, Suljic said.

Walla Walla County's wine industry also seems to be holding its own, Kuntz said.

The sale of wine has been good for the local economy, Suljic said, bringing jobs and tourism.

Kuntz said the county used to have a higher level of seasonal unemployment when it was home to more food processing. At times, they would see double-digit unemployment during late fall and winter, as those in food processing got laid off.

But those food processors closed their facilities in the county, with the last being about three years ago, Kuntz said. While there still is some food processing, the county's juice processor, Cliffstar, employs workers year-round.

"Quite frankly, our employment base has stabilized," Kuntz said.

Walla Walla County also has slow population growth, unlike the Tri-Cities, Kuntz said.

Between 2000 and 2010, the county's population grew by 6.5 percent to 58,781. During that same time, the state overall grew by 14.1 percent.

The annual growth rate of nonfarm jobs has been 0.6 percent each year in the last decade, while population has grown about 0.8 percent each year during the same time, Suljic said. That's stable, she said.

During September, about 28,700 Walla Walla County residents had jobs, according to data from the Employment Security Department. That's down by about 320 jobs, a 1.1 percent dip, from September 2011.

About 23,510 of those workers had nonfarm jobs, which was down by about 300 workers from September 2011, a 1.3 percent drop.

There were 1,980 people out of work and actively searching for it, which was 70 people fewer than September 2011.

From January through September, WorkSource Walla Walla has seen a slight decline in job listings, said Jennie Weber, area director for the Eastern Washington Partnership development area. While the number of business using WorkSource has remained steady, businesses have fewer openings, she said.

On average, WorkSource Walla Walla helps 1,000 job seekers each month, Weber said.

But some job growth is expected in the near future. The Washington State Penitentiary is hiring, Suljic said.

That's part of the prison's addition of two medium-security units, a $60 million or more project, Kuntz said.

The June 2013 expansion by 512 new beds means the state Department of Corrections needs to hire more than 100 new employees, mostly correctional officers, Weber said.

WorkSource is helping Corrections with the hiring. Weber said WorkSource is providing on-site orientations with Corrections staff, options for skill development, access to job readiness activities and help with the online application.

And Kuntz said he sees success in attracting economic development to the western part of the county right now.

Recently, Railex announced a $20 million investment for a 500,000-square-foot wine storage and distribution center near Wallula. As part of the expansion, Railex plans to add about 25 employees.

Kuntz said he sees the western portion of the county becoming a transportation cluster. He wouldn't be surprised to have an announcement of intermodal business opportunities, where box cars are taken from trucks and put on rail.

Kuntz said the port plans to continue to develop infrastructure and business parks to attract investment.

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