An Interview with Jonathan Smith
Executive Director of the Grant County Economic Development Council
Few rural counties in Washington State have seen such a dramatic positive change in their economy over a short period of time than Grant County. Much of this is due to the leadership of Jonathan Smith CEcD, Executor Director of the Grant County Economic Development Council and his remarkable team of practitioners. Since joining the EDC in 2005, Jonathan has assisted seven companies in relocating to Grant County. These companies have spent over $450 million in construction of new facilities and have created 280 full time jobs that pay approximately $14 million in annual wages and salaries. Read how Jonathan has transformed the area into an economic diversified economy in this month’s interview that I have called “Mr. Smith Makes a Difference in Washington.
A question plaguing many employers across the country is how to find workers with soft skills. How is Grant County addressing this problem?
We recognized this problem almost a decade ago and have established a “workforce ready community.” We created an educational pipeline that is consistently graduating students with a strong work ethic and the skillsets needed to succeed with local businesses. Students at the High School Skills Center live by the mantra “On time – every day – with a positive attitude.” These students are being snatched up by companies for paid internships, special projects, and future job opportunities. Some programs at Big Bend Community College have been so successful that entire classes have been hired before they even graduate.
This is the result of shift in educational focus. The customer in education is not the student, it is society at large and more specifically the local industry or businesses where the students will eventually work. The schools function then is to produce a student that has the soft skills and technical know-how to meaningfully contribute to society and local employers.
The labor force is Grant County is less than 50,000 strong. How did your rural community attract multi-national companies that typically only locate in the largest metropolitan areas?
It goes back to being a workforce ready community. When site selectors for big projects evaluate our area they are always initially concerned about the size of the labor pool. After completing a more thorough evaluation they find that this is actually one of our areas greatest strengths. Because we are not a metropolitan area we have put significant effort into developing and growing the quality of the workforce beyond what it would otherwise be.
This isn’t just hyperbole. Eight years ago there were zero data centers in Grant County and five years ago there was no carbon fiber production in Grant County. Today there are over 700 people employed at data centers in Central Washington and Moses Lake is home to the largest carbon fiber production facility in the world. The majority of the employees working at these facilities were born and raised right here. We have demonstrated over and over our ability to produce a quality trained workforce for any industry, including industries that are brand new to the area.
My last question is one you probably get asked a lot. When will Grant County run out of the low cost electricity that it is so famous for?
I do get asked this question a lot, especially by site selectors and companies looking at Grant County as a place to do business. While power sales are complicated and I could talk for thirty minutes about how they work, the short answer is that Grant County Public Utility District will always have electricity for sale, and the electric rate will always be lower than most everywhere else.
Every year Grant PUD sells surplus electricity on the open market and as more industrial growth occurs in the county, less is available to be sold on the open market. It will be years and years before Grant PUD is consistently purchasing more electricity from the open market then it sells.
When that “magical day” does occur, when the PUD has to buy additional electricity to meet the needs of the county, the cost of the additional electricity purchased will simply be blended into the existing low cost rate. Even if the new electricity need is purchased at double or triple of the low cost rate; by blending the costs together, the rate will still be remarkably low and much less than the rate anywhere else in the Country.
We’ll make the numbers simple to illustrate how this works. Imagine hypothetically that the PUD is maxed out of 3 cent power at 1,000 units. A new customer comes along and wants 50 megawatts but the cost is 6 cents for the PUD to purchase this electricity. By blending the rates together the PUD ends up with 1,050 total megawatts at a blended cost of 3.1 cents per unit. It is true that there is upward pressure on rates at this point, but the rates will still be remarkably low compared to anywhere else and there will not be a sudden jump in the rate.