Economic leaders reflect on top accomplishments of 2019

Expansions, visions cited as year’s biggest successes

Those focused on growing, promoting and improving the Tri-City economy are counting up their 2019 successes and looking ahead to plans for the upcoming year and decade.

Recent wins include plans for an expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center, a new nonstop flight from Pasco to Chicago, Richland’s Preferred Freezer Services expansion and opening of Packaging Corporation of America, and the conclusion of the second phase of the myTRI 2030 project, which is working to harness a community vision for the Tri-Cities over the next 10 years.

“We’ve had a good year. I think it can always be better, but it was a good year,” said Carl Adrian, executive president and chief executive officer of the Tri-City Development Council. The year wasn’t without its disappointments, as United Airlines announced in November it was canceling a highly-marketed nonstop flight to Los Angeles International Airport.

The head of Visit Tri-Cities had called the daily flight a “game changer.”

“Even though the flight is going to go away, we have been planting the seeds that the Tri-Cities is a wine region, so that doesn’t go away,” said Michael Novakovich, president and chief executive officer of Visit Tri-Cities. “We’ve still got those wine lovers and they’re looking for places to go. We’ve heard of some over-tourism in northern California, so if someone has to turn the spigot off, ‘Welcome to Washington!’ ”

The community is building on this strong reputation for winemaking, expecting two new American Viticultural Areas in the Mid-Columbia to become officially recognized, while also feeding a growing appetite for science tourism with a future visitor’s center expected at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, known as LIGO, at the Hanford site.

“We have these wonderful assets and we’re working to make them more accessible to all,” Novakovich said.

New businesses continue to open or expand each year, resulting in dozens of yearly groundbreaking and ribbon cuttings for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Lori Mattson, the chamber’s president and CEO.

“When I look back on that and see how many ceremonies we participated in, it tells me that the economy here is strong and entrepreneurs are opening new businesses and there are multiple locations for current businesses,” she said.

The chamber boasts 1,200 members and has a counselor focused exclusively on helping small businesses identify and apply for government contracts at the Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

“(The counselor) meets with businesses all week long and counsels them, helps them understand the paperwork, like how do you find a contract or bid on it? Is your organization even ready for that?” Mattson said.

The PTAC counselor is an employee of the chamber but also part of a statewide network.

TRIDEC is preparing for its longtime leader Carl Adrian to retire in early 2020. Focused on growing the Tri-Cities economy for more than 15 years, Adrian believes the biggest success from 2019 is the $35 million expansion of Preferred Freezer Services in Richland, as well as the nearby cardboard-box making facility built by Packaging Corporation of America.

“Both of those projects, to some degree, were driven by Lamb Weston’s expansion,” Adrian said. “They’re both involved in the supply chain for Lamb Weston. When the community has a win, when TRIDEC has a win, it’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving because those companies are here for the long haul. They’re going to continue to pay property taxes every year. They’re going to continue to have multi-million dollar payrolls every year that create a multiplier effect in the community.”

Preferred Freezer’s expansion was expected to create 75 additional jobs with another 100 nearby at PCA.

“A win in any city is a win for every city,” said Ashley Stubbs, director of communications at TRIDEC.

As more jobs are created in the community, there are an increasing number of amenities available to attract both community residents and visitors.

“We’re working to change the community narrative and getting the community to understand how amazing the Tri-Cities is, and really flipping this idea that there’s nowhere to eat and there’s nothing to do,” Novakovich said. “When, in fact, we have some incredible opportunities here, but you need to get out and explore them, and then talk about it. There are cool things here.”

Novakovich’s team is promoting some of the science-related attractions through a campy music video encouraging viewers with an original song called, “Come On Get Your Geek On.” It highlights places like the Hanford B Reactor, Reach Museum, Bechtel National Planetarium, LIGO and the USS Triton Submarine Memorial Park.

Novakovich hopes tourists and residents alike will be interested in the offerings around the community, as more than 6,300 people have jobs directly related to tourism in the Tri-Cities, and visitors pump more than half a billion a year into the local economy.

“Whether the residents recognize it or not, we’re all touched by it,” he said.

At the chamber, Mattson’s team is dreaming big for what the Tri-Cities could offer in 10 years’ time. It first launched myTRI 2030 to the public in 2018, but is gearing up for a big push as 2019 closes, announcing 60 “big” ideas identified across six major opportunity areas.

Considered a regional vision project, myTRI 2030 has assembled experts and practitioners in the “big buckets” of agriculture, energy, education, inclusion, life and prosperity. While hosting “big vision” workshops and studying the efforts of other communities, Mattson still says, “We’re literally pouring the road as we drive on it. We plan this far ahead and then we execute, and then as we’re executing, we’re saying, ‘OK, we’re reaching the end of the road, what are we doing now?’ ”

The third phase of myTRI 2030 includes the creation of councils made up of about a dozen people for each of the focus areas.

“These are people who are connected, these are people who are influential, these are people who are visionary, who are collaborative and could look at this list of 10 potential things and decide which ones we would work on. We’re not going to do 60 things in 10 years, but we might do a few in each area, or maybe one big one, and it’s going to take 10 years to accomplish,” she said.

Thanks to financial support from founding donors that saw them through the first phase, Mattson said the group will continue to fundraise and work with the community to execute a shared vision.

“We hope that over the course of the next 10 years, there could be two or three things every year that could be actually up and running, and then something else comes up, and then in 10 years we could look back and say, ‘Gosh, look at what the community accomplished,’ ” she said.

Novakovich recognizes community support is critical when it comes to building on resources that already exist and can often take some public convincing to recognize the overall benefit to the community tax base, contributing to budgets for first responders and public education. “When you invest in something like an aquatic center or the convention center or the HAPO Center, while it may look on the front end like things don’t pencil so well, the economic impact of it, what happens on the back side of that with taxes and visitor-generated taxes make great sense and far outweigh any subsidy that’s paid by the cities,” Novakovich said.

A public-private partnership is behind an upcoming $85 million project to expand the Three Rivers Convention Center, adding a hotel, retail building and parking. Novakovich sees it as a necessity for the Tri-Cities so it doesn’t lose convention business to Yakima and Spokane.

The future project’s close proximity to Vista Field is an added benefit due to the planned growth at the central Kennewick site.

“We are super excited about Vista Field,” Novakovich said. “People visiting like to be able to get out and walk around, so to be able to have a walkable district with food and amenities, it’s exciting.”

Adrian said TRIDEC has offered assistance to the Port of Kennewick’s Vista Field project to recruit anchor tenants. “With the infrastructure being put into Vista Field right now, I think somebody’s going to come look at that and have a little clearer vision of what that can look like other than just a runway,” he said.

Adrian hopes the person who replaces him will bring fresh ideas and a forward-looking vision.

He’s proud of the organization’s federal advocacy that helped make the case for a federal budget for the region that was $341 million above the president’s original request.

Adrian said the latest request is about $500 million more than the president’s budget for 2020, and mirrors the request of the Senate.

A budget is not yet in place, but the Tri-Cities will continue to outline its successes while diversifying the economy, attracting new businesses and supporting those in place.

“We are looking at, ‘How do we leverage all of our experience and legacy in energy and the role that we’ve played looking ahead to the future and developing and cultivating new energy sources?’” Stubbs said.

Leveraging that experience could be part of one of the potential projects kicked off through myTRI 2030 efforts.

“We say the table’s going to get bigger and rounder,” Mattson said. “It’s exciting to think in 10 years, how many people can serve on a council or be on a team and work on a project and how many will have done that in 10 years’ time.”

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