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Officials talk up Tri-Cities at legislative meeting

Tri-City leaders met with a legislative committee in Richland Wednesday to tout the region's accomplishments -- and to ask legislators to support efforts that educate workers and create jobs.

State Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle -- all members of the House Community & Economic Development & Housing Committee -- visited with about 20 local leaders at Washington State University to talk about how to encourage innovation in the area.

The committee has a goal to make Washington "the most attractive, creative and fertile environment for innovation in the world by 2020."

Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, said the state should be supporting efforts to promote tourism and show potential visitors what Washington has to offer.

The Legislature eliminated tourism funding as a cost-cutting measure as lawmakers have wrestled with billions in budget cuts during the past few years, she noted.

"We are one of only two states in the nation with no tourism marketing budget," Watkins said.

Other local leaders said the Legislature should support agriculture and the wine industry, as well as science and technology research and development such as the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities.

Al Haggerty of Lockheed Martin said the biomass research at BSEL is on the cusp of becoming commercially viable and he can see the Tri-Cities become a significant producer of biomass fuels and products, but that there's enough business to go around for the whole state.

"The potential market for biofuels is so big that the east side and west side (of Washington) don't have to be competitive," Haggerty said.

A key component to supporting the development of new technologies is to invest in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education, local officials said.

Dick Pratt, WSU Tri-Cities vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the state needs to look at tuition rates and keep college affordable for students.

"Tuition needs to be predictable and affordable," Pratt said. "We can't continue to shift the burden to students. We have gone through dramatic changes in funding for higher education. It makes it difficult for us to pull off our mission, which is to sweep students into this pipeline."

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