Opinion: Hey state legislators, take a good look at the Tri-Cities

Washington Rep.-elect Matt
Washington Rep.-elect Matt McClatchy

There’s an old joke about the Northwest’s unpredictable weather:

“Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes. It’ll change.”

Sometimes as I drive around the Tri-Cities, I feel the same way about my adopted hometown, especially in the 20 years since 1999 arrived, marking the approach of the 21st century.

From conversations with visitors, it’s clear many of them also are surprised to discover what’s happened in the Tri-Cities since their last trip here. And so I think many of our state’s legislators also could use an update.

First, let’s start with population:

The Tri-Cities has become the Northwest’s fifth largest metro area, behind only Seattle-Tacoma, Portland-Vancouver, Boise and Spokane. Once the census workers who keep population counts add on the growth during 2018, there likely will be more than 300,000 people living in Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, West Richland and the surrounding area.

That makes our eastern Tri-Cities larger than the west-side’s Tri-Cities — Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, which most legislators likely know quite well.

So, legislators, when you want programs to serve the southeastern part of the state, please stop reflexively putting regional state offices in Yakima. A legislative candidate from Walla Walla this last fall reminded the Herald editorial board that Walla Walla residents enrolled in a regional substance abuse program had to travel roughly 270 miles roundtrip to Yakima regularly. And anyone from farther east — say Clarkston — could face traveling up to another 200 miles.

It’s past time to stop thinking that Yakima is the east side of the state. On my map, it’s in the center.

Next, let’s talk about our economy. If you still think the Tri-Cities is still built largely around things nuclear, you’re wrong. As a state, we grow roughly 300 different crops, but the vast majority of them are grown within 90 miles of the Tri-Cities.

Yes, the west side has tulips, berries and dairies, but we have everything from A to W over here, starting with apples, alfalfa and asparagus, then right on down to wheat, watermelon and wine grapes. And lots of potatoes

A single Lamb Weston potato-processing plant in Richland cranks out 600 million pounds of frozen French fries annually. And there are several more around the region. Potatoes may not be a glamour crop, but Lamb Weston adds about 2,500 jobs to our area’s economy. No matter how you prefer your potatoes, they come from here.

Now if you want glamour, we grow that as well. Walla Walla may get the most ink for its fine wines, but the backbone of our 1,000-winery statewide industry is the vineyards of the Horse Heaven Hills, the Columbia Basin and the Yakima Valley. Almost all Washington’s roughly 60,000 acres of wine grapes are planted within 90 miles of the Tri-Cities.

Without them, Woodinville would go back to being a backwater.

The wine industry also has created a raft of jobs never envisioned 20 years ago. More demand for fine restaurants, upscale hotels, specialty foods and more tourists seeking wine adventures have created thousands of service industry jobs. In the past year alone, the Tri-Cities added 400 hospitality jobs and 300 in food service.

More people also has bolstered demand for educators and for health services, where the total jobs now number 16,700, with a 1,000 of those jobs added in the past year. More people also require more government services, where the jobs total now is 19,600.

Now, let’s talk Hanford and things nuclear for a few minutes. The administrative sector of our work force, which is largely Hanford, totals 11,400 workers. They are a big part of our economy, but no longer the biggest part. It’s taken nearly 60 years since the government began shutting down Hanford’s plutonium production reactors, but our economy has diversified.

And a big part of our economy is vital to Western Washington. We operate the region’s only commercial nuclear plant, which cranks out roughly enough power to light Seattle and keep everyone warm on your side of the Cascades. Still, the Columbia Generating Station is not the biggest part of what we do to provide your energy.

Not far away, hundreds of wind turbines creak and groan through their daily rounds and hydroelectric dam turbines churn to keep the Northwest’s homes heated and industrial plants humming to make Boeing aircraft, Microsoft and all of our Seattle metro areas prosperous.

At Hanford, the focus for the past 30 years has been cleaning up the mess federal operations left behind after World War II and the Cold War. Along the way, we’ve been developing and refining new technologies with surprising applications at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. With about 4,200 employees, it holds contracts with an array of government and private entities, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Our economic diversity also has created a retail sector that employs roughly 13,000, creating a regional hub for shoppers from Northeastern Oregon, Southeastern Washington and even a small slice of Idaho in the Lewiston-Clarkston area.

Despite all this change, and perhaps because so much of it has been quite rapid, sometimes we feel the Legislature, meeting roughly 250 miles away, doesn’t pay much attention to this side of the state. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why a few of our frustrated legislators introduced a bill to split our state in half.

Frankly, I think it’s a lousy idea. But it is a message. For me, it’s a message that we wish you knew us better than it sometimes appears you do. And that we wish you would think more about the whole state as you grapple with our state’s issues.