Last week I spent three days on the road with President Elson Floyd touring Clallam, Jefferson, and Grays Harbor counties as part of his statewide tour. While I am not able to accompany him to all 39 counties, I have arranged to participate in about half of his county visits. I was particularly interested in this leg of the tour, as it took us to the Olympic Peninsula, a part of the state that most of us don’t spend much time in, and a place I had not visited in over 15 years. I surmised that this unique area of the state (and the world) would reveal some very different issues and community needs for CAHNRS and WSU Extension to address. I was not disappointed.
Day One took us to Clallam County and the county seat, Port Angeles. The first thing I discovered in Clallam County was how out of touch I was with pop culture. Everyone was talking about the visibility that the Twilight series books and movies has brought to the area. I not only did not know that the series was staged in Forks and Port Angeles, but I had never even heard of Twilight!
Like the entire Peninsula, this area has been hard hit by reductions in natural resource industries, most notably forestry and fisheries. The county does have a small, thriving agricultural sector, and I was pleased to hear that the county’s producers were highly knowledgeable and appreciative of not only the work of local Extension, but also of the research ongoing at the Northwest Washington Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon. Although Port Angeles is quite a ways from Mt. Vernon in driving miles, the two areas are quite similar in climatic and agronomic conditions. Not surprisingly, then, local farmers are highly engaged with Mt. Vernon faculty, particularly in the area of vegetable seed production.
Jefferson County was our destination for Day Two. Jefferson County is unique in a lot of ways, but of particular interest is that it is the only county in the nation where Extension has been designated as the county’s lead agency for economic development. County director, Katherine Baril, and her staff have teamed up with local leaders and volunteers to form Team Jefferson County. This high-energy group shared some outstanding outcomes with us which have resulted in significant improvements to the economic vitality of the county and improved the quality of lives of its citizens. This is a significant achievement, as economic statistics shared by the group revealed that over 50 percent of the income in the county is generated from dividends and transfer payments. Nonetheless, the group has engaged in an economic development strategy that builds on local amenities and entrepreneurs, as opposed to recruiting industry or large retailers to the region. And it seems to be working!
Our third and final day took us to Grays Harbor County, on the southern end of the Olympic Peninsula. Again, more examples of WSU involved in economic development activities. Of particular interest was a visit to the Satsop Development Park which is located on a partially developed nuclear power plant that was never completed and was abandoned in the mid-1980s when the Washington Public Power Supply System defaulted on over $2 billion in revenue bonds.
While the needs and circumstances of these three counties are unique, several commonalities exist. First and foremost, there is a strong desire to partner with WSU on activities and projects that benefit the economic development of local communities. Second, we heard expressed a need for a four-year higher education presence on the Peninsula. Two of the Learning Centers eliminated during last year’s budget reductions were located in these three counties, and locals are still smarting over their closure. Hopefully, an alternative approach to deliver four-year education can be formulated. Whatever the strategy, President Floyd was clear that it would require new resources from the state to deliver such a program. Third, we heard a strong interest in leading the state in development of a “green economy” which is consistent with the natural resource amenities of the Olympic Peninsula. Finally, we were gratified to hear that there is appreciation and support for WSU Extension.
Despite very difficult budget situations in all three counties, county contributions to WSU Extension have remained very strong. Extension plays a huge role in advancing economic development, citizen engagement, youth development and education at all levels.
These folks do not take these benefits for granted!