Explosive growth will bring its own set of challenges

At the end of 2020, we looked back at the impacts of Covid-19 on our local Tri-Cities’ economy and predicted a fast rebound. In 2021, we definitely experienced a rebound and have seen continued growth in the size of our workforce. We are anticipating even more workforce growth in 2022.

According to our Washington State Employment Security Department Regional Economist Ajsa Suljic, Benton and Franklin counties currently have 108.9% of the workforce that we had in the first quarter of 2020.

Essentially, the number of people who are working in our community has grown by almost 10% in less than two years, while going through a global pandemic and its resulting economic disruption!

This fact reinforces how our economy works in that the primary industries such as food manufacturing, scientific research, construction and environmental remediation were not as affected by closures early in 2020. These industries were either quickly deemed essential by the state and did not shut down or transitioned to working remotely.

Area businesses struggled with a labor shortage as the Mid-Columbia economy revived in 2021. (Photo by Kristina Lord)

However, secondary industries such as hospitality and food service were affected by business closures and are still challenged with filling open positions. Unfortunately, the recovery and growth in our workforce has not been even across all industries and sectors.

In 2021, we also had exciting announcements on new attraction and growth projects. These included:

Darigold

At the end of June, Darigold, a leading Washington-based dairy marketing and processing company, announced plans to build a $500 million, state-of-the-art premium protein and butter operation at the Port of Pasco’s Reimann Industrial Center. This facility will incorporate a variety of innovative technologies and conservation strategies that combined could mitigate over 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. It is targeted to break ground in early 2022 and begin full commercial production within two years of this milestone. Darigold is expecting to create over 1,000 on site and indirect supply chain and service jobs. This project was a huge team effort led by the Port of Pasco, which included the city of Pasco, Franklin County, Franklin PUD, TRIDEC and many others.

Reser’s Fine Foods

Earlier in June, Beaverton, Oregon-based Reser’s Fine Foods purchased land from Cox Family Land LLC and shortly thereafter broke ground on a new 250,000-square-foot prepared foods plant. The company is also considering repurposing its existing 110,500-square-foot facility, which combined with the new plant, would lead to a net job increase in the Tri-Cities. The new prepared foods plant will be state of the art and accommodate rising demand for convenience foods and will employ technology to reduce water and power use.

Local Bounti

June was also the month that Local Bounti closed on the 28-acre Pasco site of its new Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) site. They will combine vertical and greenhouse growing methods with cutting-edge technology to grow fresh greens and herbs 365 days a year in a controlled, indoor facility. Their CEA process also includes a rapid packaging and shipping system which will allow their product to be delivered to their retailers within hours of being harvested. Local Bounti is planning to employ 40 people within 36 months of its operational launch later in 2022.

Amazon

On Sept. 16, Amazon Inc. confirmed it was in the process of building two distribution centers in Pasco. Each warehouse will be more than 1 million square feet and together will employ a total of 1,500 people. Each new warehouse will receive, store and distribute different categories of goods. Smaller items such as household goods, books, toys and technology will be in one while the other will have larger items like paper goods, pet food and supplies, patio furniture, baby strollers and outdoor sports equipment, including kayaks, skis and fishing gear.

Challenges

Between these new developments and the organic growth of our existing businesses, we can see that over 2,000 direct jobs and at least double that number of indirect jobs will be created in the Tri-Cities over the next two years. Direct jobs are created by a new company’s employment while indirect jobs are ones in the supply chain and service industries connected to the new company and their operations.

The new developments outlined above will all compete for many of the same employees at entry-level positions. A good employee who could be trained to work in the Amazon warehouses also could be trained in food manufacturing.

Historically, when there are open positions in the Tri-Cities, people have moved from neighboring communities such as Walla Walla, Yakima and Central Oregon. But today the increase in housing prices and lack of availability is limiting the amount of in-migration we can expect.

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, TRIDEC is looking forward to working with our community partners in economic development, industry, government and education to develop strategies to address this workforce and housing shortage. Some of these solutions may include making stronger connections between local students in the K-12 education system and companies with open positions, talent attraction campaigns and focusing on Tri-City residents who commute to neighboring counties for work.

The history of the Tri-Cities is full of ways our community has come together to overcome adversity. The next chapter about how we will continue to fuel our rapid growth with more citizens, will be written in the coming months and years.

Karl Dye is president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC.

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