In rural Klickitat County, wind-farm construction is driving new employment in a place that's struggled for years after high-paying jobs in timber and aluminum dried up.
GOLDENDALE, Klickitat County — An electrician enlarged his shop. A fencing contractor is so busy he’s had to stop advertising. A former drywaller loves his new job stringing electrical cable up 200-foot ladders.
In rural Klickitat County, wind-farm construction is driving new employment in a place that’s struggled for years after high-paying jobs in timber and aluminum dried up.
It’s not a wide-open boom, but it’s definitely helping, said Jim Allyn, owner of Allyn’s Building Supply, which recently saw a 20 percent spike in sales and was able to take on an extra worker.
The prevailing mentality: The wind blows anyway; it might as well blow money.
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“There’s more than wind surfing on this stuff,” said Mike Canon, economic-development director for Klickitat County.
No one knows exactly how many temporary construction jobs have been created, but if current plans are borne out, the wind farms will ultimately start an estimated 535 permanent jobs and generate nearly $15 million in annual property taxes.
The county is becoming the Northwest’s wind-farm capital, with 14 projects either built, under construction or in the planning stage. Five are producing some level of electricity so far.
If all of them are built, they will have the capacity to produce 2,661 megawatts, enough to power potentially more than 1 million homes.
Windy Point and Windy Flats are the latest and largest wind farms. Together, they will be one of the largest wind projects in the United States, according to developer Cannon Power Group of San Diego.
When completed next year, the wind farms will stretch across 26 continuous miles of ridgeline above the north shore of the Columbia River and have a capacity to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 250,000 homes.
The tips of the turbine blades soar 415 feet off the ground, creating an imposing view from the wheat farms and cattle ranches dotting the hills surrounding Goldendale, with a population of 3,715.
The company plans to sell some of that power to California and has signed letters-of-intent to do so.
But while the power heads south, the jobs are here, and that’s a relief to a county with chronically high unemployment, 12.3 percent last month.
Construction work is done through myriad subcontractors, making exact employment statistics and wage information elusive, said Brandy Myers, the project administrator.
However, more than 150 workers are building the two Cannon wind farms. Jobs range from clerical work to road and site excavation to wood framing to wiring. As many as half of the workers are from Klickitat County.
Some of the work is contracted to Goldendale firms, but the out-of-town companies also hire local workers, said Lucky Hoffman, director of engineering and construction for Cannon.
For example, Herling Construction of Cherry Valley, Calif., with a contract to build 20 miles of roads, has about 50 employees. About 75 percent are from Klickitat County, said Ron Goldade, a foreman.
Goldade, 58, has lived in Goldendale for 25 years. Once a production supervisor at nearby aluminum plants, he lost his job when the plants shut down in 2000.
“You take what skills you learned and you try to build the mousetrap all over again,” he said.
The local contractors have picked up work, too. Pat Williams of Williams Electric was hired to wire the office and maintenance buildings at both Cannon sites. His staff rose to six employees for a time last year, while he added onto his shop in town and purchased a new bucket truck from a Goldendale dealership.
Cody Slater, owner of CRS Construction and Fencing, has been turning away work for six years since wind farms arrived in the area. Hired to erect fencing and install cattle guards at the Cannon wind farms, Slater has purchased $180,000 of new equipment, including a $73,000 excavator from The Dalles, Ore., about 35 miles away.
“For once, we’ve never had to hunt for work,” Slater says.
The construction causes a ripple effect in the area.
Some of the work requires specialists from Utah, Wyoming, Florida and Michigan, filling up the town’s three motels. Restaurants are busy.
Last year, Allyn’s Building Supply saw its highest sales ever. However, its owner warns that it’s not a boom.
“Goldendale is never a boom or bust town,” Allyn said. “We just kind of rock along. We’ve always had high unemployment.”