State and federal government failed to stem the deepening economic challenges confronting many Washington communities long before COVID-19 cut into lives and livelihoods. Old timber towns with shuttered mills, flood-soaked cities and rural areas left off high-speed broadband networks suffered dearths of economic opportunity, even as Puget Sound’s largest cities flourished with explosive tech growth. 

New federal legislation to help inject these communities with new opportunities and investment ought to become part of the infrastructure funding intended to put America on stronger economic footing. The RECOMPETE Act proposed by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is a thoughtful approach to helping economically strapped communities reassert themselves as great places to build livelihoods. It would create 10-year economic aid and grant programs for places that need jobs the most. This new federal initiative would expand broadband, reconstruct infrastructure, clean up brownfields where pollution inhibits development, and provide other help for communities mired in economic stagnation. 

Grays Harbor County cities put this need in acute focus. Like vast sections of rural and formerly industrialized America, great jobs are thin on the ground there for many prime-age workers, defined by labor researchers as those between ages 25 and 54. Employment figures for that key group lag more than 5% behind perennial national averages, enough to classify the area as a “distressed community” under standards set by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Flooding problems that plague thousands of properties in Aberdeen and Hoquiam are a factor, but government relief has been slow in coming — which has, in turn, stymied growth. 

Kilmer, who grew up in Port Angeles, designed the RECOMPETE Act to focus on targeting federal resources on such intensely local problems and empower a community-by-community resurgence. The national landscape is rife with places that face challenges such as the flood control needs of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Kilmer said in an interview. The prescription for the Hoquiam and Aberdeen is to set them up to succeed by leveraging short-term flood management construction projects — and the jobs they provide — to empower long-term growth.

“Right now, in the absence of those investments, you’re not really seeing any sort of economic development or housing development,” Kilmer said. “Their housing stock (in Aberdeen and Hoquiam) is really old. And yet if you’re a housing developer, you’re not really investing in new homes in the flood plain.”

The bill has deservedly drawn bipartisan support in the state and nationally. Four Washington representatives are among the 50 House co-sponsors of the bill, HR 4651: U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, and Marilyn Strickland, D-Tacoma. U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, has proposed a parallel bill as well. 

The proposal is scalable, but the approach should not cheap out when the needs run so deep. Kilmer said full funding would put $17 billion a year into RECOMPETE grants for a 10-year program. That’s a heavy lift, even by federal standards, but must be given serious consideration in the ongoing debate about how the federal government can rebuild aging American infrastructure.

About one-sixth of Americans live in “distressed communities,” according to the Upjohn Institute’s research. If renewing those hometowns’ prospects to provide better economic opportunities isn’t “building back better,” as President Joe Biden often repeats, what is?