An Interview with Ron Nelson
Executive Director, Island County Economic Development Council
Ron Nelson has worked at the Island County Economic Development Council since 2009, serving as the executive director since 2011. Ron is responsible for executing the EDC’s goals which includes providing resources to grow and development the county’s businesses, developing strategies to build a sustainable and diverse local economy and advising local governments on the impact of policies on the local economy.
Prior to working at the EDC he worked in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force as the Career Field Manager for Public Affairs where he was responsible for workforce development and human resource administration and policy for 3,500 Airmen. During his 25 year Air Force career he worked on the Joint Staff, Air Staff and numerous command staffs. His assignments took him to England, Germany and several different states.
What’s been your greatest challenge?
Five years ago residents and local governments applied their efforts to increasing tourism and agriculture businesses. ESD’s data shows those two sectors as the lowest paying in the county – close to or less than the poverty level for a family of four. Getting people to accept this idea and embrace the idea of growing ‘living wage’ jobs was tough.
How did you tackle the challenge?
Information. People were making assumptions based on what they felt rather than facts. Presenting them with objective, third party facts from Census, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Dept of Revenue and other sources helped center everyone on reality. Being objective myself was also very important.
I never told anyone that the county should not support agriculture or tourism. What I told them was they should do so knowing that it could increase poverty in the county. It’s all about choices and living with the consequences of those choices. After five years I find people in the county more accepting in looking at a broader range of possible businesses sited here.
How does Naval Air Station Whidbey Island impact your local economy?
It IS the 800 pound gorilla in the northwest region. There’s no employer in Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan Island or Jefferson counties bigger.
In 2013 Commissioner Jill Johnson asked the EDC to study the base’s economic impact. We didn’t have $100,000 to hire a consultant, so I did it myself. What I discovered was stunning. In 2011 Island County had $1.4 billion paid in compensation to all workers. $700 million was from NAS Whidbey active duty alone. That doesn’t count the federal civilians. Over half of the students in the Oak Harbor School District’s 5,600 students are military dependents. The base also pumps $17 million a year into local healthcare.
Does the base’s impact concern you?
Absolutely. From an economic development standpoint a base closure would devastate the local economy. Studies show that if we had a clear plan to use the base’s property, if we had a team of local business people sitting on a board with the authority to act decisively about the property, if cleanup of contaminated ground didn’t take too long, if we were located close to an urban center with robust transportation infrastructure, then we could expect return to current economic levels in about 15-20 years. That’s scary.
Our goal is diversification. However, on an island distant from I-5, with no rail, no seaport, a 2 hour drive to a regional airport, limited municipal sewer and a remote location, that’s tough.
So, what’s the future hold?
Helping one local business at a time. Since recruitment’s so tough, we focus on helping our own. They want to be here. They can live with our challenges and they appreciate our way of life. We focus especially on those which create living wage jobs, giving them intense counseling support.
Any parting shots?
The power of the EDC is in its partnerships. Capturing information from all our partners and flowing it to the right business is the most supportive thing we do. I also like our quarterly Island-San Juan-Skagit-Whatcom ADO telecons and semi-annual ADO conference for that reason. It’s great to see what everyone’s doing – what problems they face and how they solve them.
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