How do you view economic development in a rural community?

To my mind, economic developers should work to create a best-case vision of our communities and then speak up – constantly – about ways we can achieve that vision.  We can work to transform our communities from within…or accept the sometimes suboptimal status quo and watch as residents and companies leave.  Economic developers are one of the most important voices of community economic well-being – and, in smaller communities, we are often the only voice for business.  That’s powerful stuff… it’s what keeps me fighting for San Juan County businesses every single day.

What is your biggest challenge right now?

While San Juan County is blessed with very low unemployment, many of our jobs are extremely low wage, cyclical service sector jobs – we’re in the bottom quarter of Washington State counties in terms of per-capita income.  Because of this, like many rural counties in Washington, we’re losing our middle class, our families and young people to communities and cities with better paying jobs.  My rallying point is the creation of higher wage jobs through workforce training and through working to improve transportation and broadband infrastructure.

For San Juan County and for many remote rural communities in Washington, bad logistics and infrastructure seem like nearly insurmountable obstacles to building existing businesses or recruiting new ones.   In the San Juans we’re challenged by the least reliable ferry routes in the state, which makes business logistics extremely difficult.   Also, only 10% of our population has access to broadband speeds of 1.5Mbps or faster, and as broadband speeds get faster in urban areas, we fall farther and farther behind.  Our EDC has been working for five years to change that, I simply never shut up about it… and we’re finally starting to get some traction on the issue.

Any advice for rural counties?

Partnering with our neighboring communities has been a critical part of our EDC’s growth over the past 5 years.   By working with Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties’ ADO’s, we’ve been eligible for grant funding we never would have gotten as a standalone agency, and we’ve partnered on recruiting expos, educational programming and other initiatives.

Also, when I started I checked my pride at the door and asked for help from other ADO’s and agencies – during my first year, I called folks like Don Wick, Lynn Longan, Maury Forman and Sally Harris at least weekly for inspiration and ideas.   I could never have doubled the scope of the San Juan County EDC without their encouragement, and, frankly, the wholesale copying of their great ideas.

Finally, from what I’ve seen, the most successful economic developers and ADO’s are wildly in love with their communities and their businesses, and their greatest successes come simply from being the champions of those communities.   We should never forget whom we’re working for, or what our mission is…the preservation and expansion of the economic components of our communities that we love the most.