TRIDEC touts energy, ag-related industry

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMarch 19, 2014 

Attracting smart grid energy and agricultural-related manufacturers could help the Tri-Cities economy become more stable and address the local wage gap.

The Tri-City Development Council rolled out at its annual meeting Wednesday an analysis of what industries the Tri-Cities should focus on in order to continue to diversify the economy away from its Hanford dependence.

Consultants TadZo of Yakima and the Don Schjeldahl Group recently completed the study for TRIDEC on how the Tri-Cities can leverage its assets and strengths to attract industries that will help the area prosper.

The Tri-Cities still has untapped opportunities with its strong agricultural economy, TadZo's Allison Larsen told the Herald.

Among the industries that could be sought are secondary food processors that could take processed products and convert them into frozen meals or other specialty foods, she said.

Further processing tends to bring more technical jobs with higher wages, said Carl Adrian, TRIDEC's president and CEO.

Industries involved with smart grid technology also offer real potential considering local knowledge at sources such as Washington State University Tri-Cities and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Don Schjeldahl told the Herald.

Also topping the list of recommended industries are small modular nuclear reactors, logistics for agriculture, processed foods, wine and craft beer, manufacturing equipment for food processing and wineries, and training programs for security and hazardous materials handling.

Attracting and expanding businesses within those industries could help the Tri-Cities address a significant gap when it comes to medium and medium-high wage jobs, according to the analysis.

Those are basic industry jobs that pay $43,000 to $87,000 a year, Larsen said.

More jobs within those wage categories would help add to the stability of the economy, she said. The Tri-Cities has an abnormally high number of jobs that pay less than $32,000 or more than $87,000.

Eventually, the jobs on the higher end will significantly decline, Schjeldahl said.

"Now is a great time to start planning for the future," he said.

The Tri-Cities has some advantages when it comes to business recruitment, including an unusually high amount of property ready or almost ready for industrial development, Schjeldahl said.

Other strengths include the area's highways and the Tri-Cities Airport.

The Wine Science Center, under construction at WSU Tri-Cities, will help catapult the local wine industry, Larsen said. And innovations that are developed by researchers there could be made locally.

The Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative, an effort to strengthen the Tri-Cities as an energy hub, is another advantage mentioned by the consultants.

TRIDEC, Richland, the Port of Benton and Benton County have requested 1,341 acres of uncontaminated Hanford land near Richland for development. Adrian said that could be more for manufacturing-related energy businesses.

And TRIDEC and Energy Northwest also requested 300 acres for a clean energy park.

Larsen said solar testing is the only industry she sees hinging on the Hanford land transfer.

And if the Tri-Cities can show the community is addressing weaker areas, such as adding to the available number of industrial buildings, that will help increase its ability to compete, Larsen said.

That particular weakness will be tough to address since it requires someone to make what could be a risky investment, Adrian said.

One key recommendation is developing partnerships within the specific industries along with research to help increase the area's competitiveness, Larsen said.

TRIDEC already has been reaching out to Tri-City area food and beverage companies to find out why they decided to open here, Adrian said. That could help in trying to add to that industry.

Adrian said TRIDEC can't market to all of the suggested industries right away. But the research and analysis will help TRIDEC focus its efforts.

A new community branding effort also should help business recruitment, he said. TRIDEC, along with Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau and the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, hired a consultant to create a regional brand for the Tri-Cities.

The negative perception about Hanford is something that the Tri-Cities will need to address with both branding and marketing, Larsen said. People locally aren't worried because they know the facts, but that isn't true for those outside of the community, especially outside of Washington state.

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