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Time to work on policies to advance rural economy

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A few weeks ago, 70 people gathered at the Association of Washington Business on a Saturday afternoon to talk about how to bring jobs to rural Washington.

It was heartening to see so many people interested in tackling a problem that’s beginning to gain attention, but has yet to be addressed in a significant way.

The first-ever AWB Rural Jobs Summit brought out elected officials, state agency officials, economic development experts and small-business owners from throughout Washington.

They came to talk about the problem — that many parts of the state, particularly the most rural areas, continue to struggle while the tech-driven central Puget Sound economy continues to flourish. And they pledged to continue talking about the issue in hopes of finding real solutions.

It’s not just an east-west divide. The average national unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, but only two of Washington’s 39 counties are below that – King and Snohomish. Another eight counties range from 4.7 to 6 percent and the remainder are above that, with nine counties sitting at 9.1 percent or higher – Yakima County has a 10 percent unemployment rate.

That means we have a lot of opportunity to grow jobs across the state and will have to climb some hurdles to ensure economic prosperity cuts through the rural-urban divide.

On that Saturday afternoon, the group started to define the barriers to job growth in less populated areas. They acknowledged that it’s not enough to ensure the health of one or two of the state’s “iconic industries,” but the state must also protect other industries that built communities outside the urban center.

Many parts of the state were born from natural resource industries – timber, shellfish, fishing and others. As those industries face challenges, growing state and federal regulations and uncertainty in state agency project permitting continue to set many parts of the state back, not only for that sector, but for new industries looking to create good-paying jobs.

The purpose of the gathering was not to lament what isn’t working; it was an opportunity to talk about solutions and to glean from others what is working in their communities and see if those successes could be replicated across the state.

For example: Funding for an upgraded airplane hangar in Grant County wasn’t just good for the airport, but the project has also attracted other industries because of the investment. The same could be true for investment in infrastructure throughout the state.

A report published recently by AWB along with the Association of Washington Cities, the Washington State Association of Counties and the Washington Public Ports Association found that the state’s infrastructure needs total $190 billion. Investing at this level would create as many as 660,000 jobs.

But, like one legislator from the Olympic Peninsula said at the summit, the lines of communication need to open up between state and local governments and local businesses. Creativity is also key. How can we save existing industries in rural areas while finding new industries that are a match to the communities’ values?

There are no easy answers to the problem and it will require a consistent effort. But there was an energy in the room during the first Rural Jobs Summit. AWB intends to build on the momentum by hosting a larger Rural Jobs Summit later this summer.

It’s not enough for one pocket of the state to flourish. We need economic prosperity throughout all of Washington.

Kris Johnson is the president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturing association.