GRANGER, Yakima County — Ryan Stonemetz steps out of his house and onto a barren plot of land just off the Interstate 82 exit for Granger. A handful of barns and trailers dot the scene in front of him. Where many saw empty land next to a highway, Stonemetz saw a chance to bring in new business and opportunity.
Stonemetz, an entrepreneur and member of the City Council, wants to help Granger grow. He helped develop a new weekly flea market on the plot that draws people from around the Lower Yakima Valley, and he is pursuing other ideas as well.
“Basically, you’ve got a place in the middle of nowhere, and people were telling me it’s crazy to try and do anything out here,” Stonemetz said. “But what I’ve learned about the culture and of the people in this valley is that they’re very supportive, and they want something to do.”
Granger is small, one of the smallest cities in the county. From its famous dinosaur sculptures and humble blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown to its deep agricultural roots, people take pride in being from Granger. The city’s residents are looking to expand on that history and move Granger toward the future.
The community is growing. In the past decade, the population has increased from 3,246 to 3,624, and 90% of its residents are Hispanic. According to the 2020 census, about half the population is under the age of 18.
While the city’s small-town feel is one of its greatest draws, many residents say they would prefer not to drive outside of city limits for everything from groceries to a fun night out.
A vision for Granger
Stonemetz, a Zillah native, spent much of his childhood in Granger, where his friends lived. As the years passed, he saw franchises like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Best Western set up shop in Zillah. In Granger, however, things seemed to stagnate.
“I saw Granger as a place that really needs something,” Stonemetz said. “I saw Zillah as established; they have McDonald’s. Sunnyside is established, it’s much larger and has more commerce, but Granger really had nothing going on. So I figured if I could bring in a little bit of vision and people could rally behind me, why not make Granger a go-to destination for the whole valley?”
Stonemetz’s vision kicked into gear in early 2022 with the opening of the Granger Flea Market, on the highway-side plot near his house. His hopes for the market’s inaugural year were conservative.
Within months he found himself handling a rapidly growing business with an increasing number of vendors and visitors. Almost immediately, the market’s numbers eclipsed that of the Toppenish flea market, which it replaced.
“I wasn’t even prepared for the flea market to be something people gravitate to so much,” Stonemetz said. “I never expected it to be what it turned into in three weeks. I was hoping it would happen in maybe 26 weeks.”
By the end of the summer, the market was a hot spot for Sunday shoppers, high schoolers looking for any excuse to get out of the house, and people from all over the county venturing out to try the local fare.
With the flea market established, Stonemetz has set his sights on bringing spectator events to Granger. Having spent much of his career coaching wrestling in schools and colleges across the Pacific Northwest including Portland State University, Yakima Valley College and Highland High School, Stonemetz is familiar with the type of attendance and support sports can generate in a community.
Though still in the early stages of planning, Stonemetz has set his sights on developing a rodeo arena next to the market as well as a handful of soccer fields to bring in more people.
He said playing to the interests of Granger’s large Hispanic community is essential to making things work.
“It’s one of those things where you have to play to your clientele. Aside from girls wrestling, soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. A lot of people here come from Mexico or other countries, and they love soccer,” Stonemetz said. “It’s going to be for people around the Valley. With the cost of upkeep for fields and other sports facilities, a lot of schools in the area are telling youth sports programs to use other fields. For me, I saw that as an opportunity to create something and grow something here in the valley so it gives kids another opportunity to grow here in Granger.”
Radio for all
Though the percentage of Hispanic residents has grown in Granger in recent years, the city has been majority Hispanic for decades because of its agriculture-based economy and low cost of living.
In the mid-1970s, community members began working on ways to get news and other essential information to the Yakima Valley’s Spanish-speaking residents, and decided to open a Spanish-language radio station. They spent years obtaining approval from the Federal Communications Commission, and erected an antenna atop Ahtanum Ridge.
On Dec. 16, 1979, Radio KDNA went on the air for the first time.
Elizabeth Torres, director of operations at Radio KDNA, said more than 40 years later, the station’s mission remains the same.
“From its inception, Radio KDNA’s mission has been to inform the community’s agricultural and migrant workers on the programs and services within our community designed to make their quality of life better and to help bring down barriers of access to amenities like quality housing, education and health care,” Torres said. “We’ve always said, we’re not an organization that offers direct services; rather, we serve as a bridge between these services and the community itself.”
Just a few months after the station opened, its ability to keep the area’s Hispanic population informed was put to the ultimate test.
Given that KDNA was the first public Spanish-language radio station in the Pacific Northwest, residents across the state looked to the station for information after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980. The station developed a public information campaign that gave round-the-clock updates on the eruption and its fallout.
The station also provided public health information about the HIV and AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
At the same time, KDNA began partnering with outside organizations to advocate for migrants’ rights. Out of these collaborations came the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Though it wasn’t founded in Granger, the organization established one of its four offices inside the KDNA building after seeing the success of their partnership.
Other organizations that fight for migrant rights, such as Nuestra Casa, also have enjoyed a long relationship with KDNA.
These successful partnerships have established Radio KDNA as a major source of information and support for the area’s Hispanic community. Its influence has expanded beyond Yakima County with institutions like the University of Washington and Sea Mar Community Health Centers, an organization founded to increase access to health care for Washington’s Hispanic residents. In 2011, Sea Mar bought Radio KDNA to expand its public health-focused programming.
“We’ve had the opportunity to be involved in collegiate studies on the impacts of agriculture on the environment, we’ve designed public health campaigns for agricultural workers to take better care of their health, we’ve created programs to help victims of sexual assault and harassment and in recent years, we’ve aired informational programs on how families can stay cool and stay safe during periods of extreme heat like the ones we’ve seen the last few summers,” Torres said.
In the years since its founding, Radio KDNA and its programs have turned into a multigenerational household name in Granger and across the county. One of its earliest programs, “El Jardin,” a show designed for children, has been airing since the station’s inception.
“We’ve heard stories where people tell us ‘I listened to ‘El Jardin’ when I was a child, now my children listen to it as well.’ It’s something we’ve spent decades growing and we’re happy to see the work has paid off,” Torres said.
More than just schools
Given that almost half of Granger’s population is under 18, it’s no surprise that child-friendly programming is a hit in the community.
With such a large school-age population, the Granger School District plays an important role in the city. The district is made up of Roosevelt Elementary, Granger Middle School and Granger High School as well as an early education program. Combined, the schools serve 1,515 students.
Kayla Chavez, a Granger native and mother of a 4- and 7-year-old, said she wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“I think that it’s a great time to be living in Granger. I would probably never leave. I see it growing; more resources and technology are coming to the city and to the schools,” she said. “I feel like it’s a safe place for my kids to grow up in. I always say that. It’s definitely home.”
The school’s attitude toward the community and its role in supporting children as well as parents makes her happy to be in Granger, she said.
“I feel like I can come here feeling welcomed. You’re going to see a lot of people you know. You’re going to see friends and family, so in a way it really feels like we’re a big family,” Chavez said.
Roosevelt Elementary Principal Ann Bohrnsen said administrators and teachers in Granger are aware of the role they play within the community.
“We’re the only elementary school in the city, so we end up being kind of a hub for the community in terms of events and social opportunities,” Bohrnsen said. “So we try to make sure we have a lot of things for families to do.”
On Halloween, Roosevelt held a trunk or treat for its students. Cowboys, aliens, dinosaurs and video game characters spilled into Roosevelt’s gym. Along the walls of the gym, school staff and older students set up stations for games like cornhole.
On the school’s outdoor basketball court, community members and local organizations like the Granger Lions Club handed out candy from the back of their cars, themselves decorated with cobwebs, skeletons, and black and orange ribbons.
Next door, in the school’s cafeteria, volunteers handed out hundreds of free hot dogs for children and parents.
Bohrnsen said events like these are a citywide effort. Rather than having multiple organizations set up smaller events throughout the city, schools, clubs, local businesses and other organizations come together to create larger and more well attended events.
Bohrnsen said the school also puts a lot of time and focus into securing access to programs and resources for children from economically disadvantaged households. With Granger’s poverty rate of 17%, access to these resources is essential for many local families.
“We try to play lots of roles in the community. There are lots of resources here. You’ll find that at a lot of our events; we also have resources for parents whether it’s opportunities for parents to get food baskets or we have community coordinators who offer medical resources. We just want to make sure families know what’s available to them and that they have access to them,” Bohrnsen said.
Ivan Espinoza, a senior at Granger High School and lifelong resident, said he’s enjoyed the small-town life. He said the community is tight-knit; everyone from classmates to neighbors is always looking out for one another.
“It’s a small town so everybody knows each other, and they keep an eye on each other. If something goes missing or something happens in the neighborhood, you can rely on others to keep you informed,” Espinoza said.
Bringing in business
Espinoza’s friend and classmate Saul Cayetano said he enjoyed growing up in Granger for similar reasons. His only complaint? The lack of food and entertainment in the city.
“Yeah, I could do with more places to go and things to do, I think. If you want to do anything like watching a movie or getting something new to eat, you have to go to, like, Yakima or Sunnyside,” Cayetano said.
Espinoza agreed, saying there isn’t much to do in Granger for kids his age besides hanging out at each other’s houses, driving around, or playing soccer and basketball with friends.
The lack of amenities in the community extends past entertainment, however. Up until the arrival of a Dollar General in 2021 and the new flea market in 2022, Granger residents only had access to a handful of convenience stores and a butcher’s shop.
Even today, a grocery list with more than eggs, milk, bread and a cut or two of meat requires an out-of-town trip, which can be hard for residents without a car. There are no public transit options.
Chavez, the mother of two, said more restaurants, entertainment and grocery options would be popular.
“I think there are some people here who don’t want the town to grow but they would enjoy some new places more than they think,” Chavez said. “When we got a Dollar General, we were excited. We were excited to watch it be built, and we couldn’t wait to go in. Before that, you really had to leave Granger to do groceries. I mean we have like mercaditos and little Hispanic stores that have some produce but other than that, it’s just Dollar General.”
Some leaders in local government are trying to change that.
Israel Bustamante, a Granger City Council member, was voted into office in 2019 on a platform of increasing commerce in Granger and catching up economically to nearby cities such as Zillah and Prosser. He played a large role in securing the vendors for the flea market, some of whom travel from as far away as Seattle and Portland to sell their wares on Sundays.
Bustamante now is working with other council members to establish ways of bringing in new business by offering tax incentives. He said the development of the program is still in its early stages, but the city is working on bringing in business.
“I have heard from my constituents and even visitors to Granger that they’d like to see a few more opportunities for recreation or even storage garages and other amenities. That is something we’re trying to be more competitive in as a city,” Bustamante said. “We want to make the city as appealing as we can for businesses looking to come to Granger.”
Community care goes both ways
For Jose Barreras, general manager of Doc’s Pizza and Cherry Hill Golf Course, the city’s wish for new businesses does not mean already established businesses aren’t getting any love.
Except for the first half of 2020, in which virtually all restaurants in the country saw their profits drop, Doc’s Pizza has seen its revenue soar in the past two years, eclipsing even pre-pandemic numbers. Barreras said 2021 and 2022 have been some of the restaurant’s best years since it opened in Granger in 2001.
Aside from Doc’s versatility as an arcade, nine-hole golf course and restaurant, Barreras said a shared sense of community has helped keep the business afloat and doing well.
“When we got shut down, we weren’t sure what was going to happen. Fortunately, we had a lot of clientele still supporting us in the community. We saw a lot of that when people would call us and say, ‘Well, we don’t go out as much anymore but we want to support you guys,'” Barreras said.
“There were groups of people who over social media would coordinate orders for like 20 families and go to different local restaurants. We had different groups come to us that way and they’d order dozens of pizzas to go. When we opened to 50% capacity, those same groups started coming out and eating in the same way. I know the community helped us get through the lockdown.”
In return, Barreras has fought to keep prices low in the restaurant, despite inflation and rising food prices. He’s decided against compromising Doc’s beloved pizza recipe. While this has cut into his profit margins and prices at Doc’s have gone up slightly, he’s managed to find a middle ground that keeps customers happy and coming back.
Part of this compromise has included adding services to the restaurant like late-night deliveries for work crews.
Barreras said that when the pandemic began, he started selling pizzas by the dozens to overnight work crews across the county. It started with 11 p.m. deliveries for some of Granger’s largest employers like Darigold. Now, Barreras said deliveries are made as late as 2 a.m. in cities as far away as Yakima.
In Granger, the spirit of community runs strong. From parents to entrepreneurs and children to politicians, the city is full of people who share a love for what Granger is and what it can be.
On a recent November day, Stonemetz sat at his dining room table as the hustle and bustle of the nearby flea market came through the closed windows.
“Basically, Granger is a diamond in the rough,” he said. “If you think about it, you’ve got a small town that’s never seen growth but wants it. Many have come before us who have tried, and they got close but not quite there.
“Our advantage now is that we’re stubborn and we don’t give up. I think there is only one direction for Granger, and that’s up.”
Santiago Ochoa’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members,