The Columbia Basin area, built on agriculture and aviation, is thriving thanks to an economic turnaround based on a tech boom.
“The Columbia River Basin presents an amazing challenge to all the institutions that comprise typical American communities. Here, telescoped into a brief span of years, is taking place the growth and development that normally spreads over a generation or more . . . The real history of Moses Lake is in the making.”
— “Moses Lake: A New Frontier,” Stanford University study on Columbia Basin educational needs, December 1952.
YOU MIGHT THINK that by now, the people of Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County would be sick to death of starting over.
Seven decades after the Columbia Basin’s first economic reboot, in fact, it boggles the mind that some people inhabiting this dust-blown, little-dot spot on the Northwest road map still cling to the belief in the imminent arrival of that One More Thing.
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You know: the latest headline-hyped manufacturing trend, tech breakthrough, server-farm barn raising, imaginary bullet-train connection to Seattle (1989, look it up) or similar peyote pipe dream — one of which surely will lift the “Desert Oasis” town, population 21,000 and hoping, over the fence and into the sunshine of prosperity.
Well, this time, it just might. Grant County’s latest One More Thing is nothing short of a regional industrial revolution: high-technology manufacturing and digital infrastructure sprouting up, like a field of mushrooms after a heavy rain, alongside the alfalfa, potato and sugar-beet fields that powered the first boom.
You have to venture well off Interstate 90 to appreciate the immensity: Sprawling silicon and carbon-fiber plants around Grant County International Airport and a new hangar rising skyward from the bleached bones of World War II-era buildings nearby. Expansive server farms behind cold-storage warehouses in nearby Quincy.
The Columbia Basin, which has long kept America in frozen French fries and refined sugar, now keeps it in lighter-weight BMWs and digitized cat videos, tax records and other treasured cyber-goods.
“Grant County is thriving — that’s your headline,” quips Lisa Karstetter, a former Quincy Chamber of Commerce official snapped up to work in community relations for Yahoo. Her new employer built one of Quincy’s first server farms, which have brought the small farming town an economic diversity it never imagined.
Almost anywhere else, this economic Lazarus act would be trumpeted like the Second Coming. But Grant County people, mostly farming folks — or those used to sitting next to them in PTA meetings — aren’t into chest thumping. Still, a subtle enthusiasm rides the breeze with the sweet smell of sage here.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as blind optimism.
Even a quick stroll through history suggests that Moses Lakers have decades of empirical reasons to view their world through something-from-nothing optics. Grant County, named after Ulysses S., has made its way by doubling down on hands dealt by historical fate.
Two of those hands — each a product of really big government in the national formative years between the Depression and the Cold War — have been clear winners, keeping Moses Lake afloat for six decades in what otherwise would be wasteland.
THE LARGEST was agriculture, created by the opening of the flood gates of the Columbia Basin Project in the early 1950s. The nation’s largest reclamation project diverts 3 to 5 percent of the Columbia River’s output from the pool behind Grand Coulee Dam into 27-mile-long Banks Lake, from which water is distributed south, through thousands of miles of irrigation canals surrounding Moses Lake. In an instant, a sea of sagebrush became fertile ground. Today, 670,000 acres, of the 1.1 million acres originally envisioned, are growing crops.
The engineering feat brought a wave of homesteaders to work the new farms throughout the 1950s. In true government-project fashion, residential blocks hastily sketched around Moses Lake to accommodate the newcomers didn’t even have names, but numbers, i.e., “Block 40.”
The controlled flooding of a basin accustomed to six to 10 inches of rain per year turned once-squalid little ponds into sprawling inland lakes, many of which since have been populated by all manner of fish and wildlife (especially in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, at the Potholes region next to O’Sullivan Dam). The rising water table turned the puny, salty lake bearing the name of early inhabitant Chief Moses, of the Sinkiuse-Columbia people, into an 18-mile-long labyrinth with 120 miles of shoreline.
Today, it’s the city’s crown jewel, shown off by an impressive string of lush, waterfront parks. The relocated water has made the region a favorite sunny-skies vacation destination, particularly for those who love to fish, hunt, bird watch, swim or water ski.
The other regional economic driver is aviation, made possible by the 1942 federal construction of two of the longest airstrips in North America, just north of Moses Lake. Landing strips at Grant County International Airport — the former Larson Air Force Base — were built to train World War II pilots flying prop planes. Later, the base was testing home to Boeing’s revolutionary B-47 and B-50 jets. During the Cold War, the field hosted America’s workhorse strategic bomber, the B-52. At takeoff, those nuclear-bomb-laden birds used almost all of the airstrip’s 2.5-mile-long runway.
That strip was an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle; few modern planes need that much space. But the airfield, inherited by the newly formed Port of Moses Lake when the Air Force left town in 1966, has remained an active venue for flight testing, thanks to its good weather and uncrowded skies. Boeing has maintained a constant presence here for decades. And Japan Airlines called Moses Lake home for 40 years, training some 10,000 pilots to receive 747 flight certifications.
JAL left in 2008, largely due to the imminent retirement of most of its 747s. But its shoes are about to be filled. AeroTEC, a Seattle-based flight-testing contractor, is building its own 65,000 square foot hangar here — big enough to house a 777X (hint, hint). Its first tenant will be Mitsubishi Aircraft of Japan, which will begin flight testing for its new Mitsubishi Regional Jet later this year.
The airfield has provided a measure of economic diversity for decades. But the rapidly emerging third economic leg is poised to become even more of a driving force.
WHEN THE Columbia River dam system was seriously discussed in the 1920s, electricity was an afterthought. No one could have dreamed that the resulting supply of consistent, relatively cheap power, aside from lighting much of the West, would help build luxury vehicles — or safely store Grandma’s entire recipe collection in a digital “cloud.” But that’s exactly what it’s doing in Grant County today.
Thanks mostly to cheap power from the Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams, the region now produces things like electrolytic aluminum foil (at Chemi-Con), aerial work-platform lifts (Genie Industries), polysilicon for the solar industry and silane gas used in flat screens (REC Silicon), materials for semiconductor wafer fabrication (Moses Lake Industries) and air-bag propellants (Takata).
Moses Lake’s recent star free-agent acquisition is SGL Group, a Munich-based materials partner of BMW, which since 2010 has invested $300 million in a carbon-fiber plant near the airport that stands as the world’s largest. Fiber produced in Moses Lake already zooms around the globe in BMW i3 and i8 vehicles; the business is expected to grow.
The same holds true for Grant County’s sprawling server farms, whose builders were drawn not just by electrical rates, but a safe rural location and, particularly, a robust fiber-optic data network built largely to run the power grid. Eight server farms hum along in the county, seven of those in sleepy little Quincy.
It still seems amusing to see farmers on tractors working fields across the road from server farms run by data giants such as Microsoft, Dell, Yahoo, Intuit, CenturyLink and others, says Yahoo’s Karstetter, a longtime Quincy resident whose husband operates a family-owned orchard.
“It’s been really neat to watch the change,” says Karstetter, who grew up on an Othello potato farm and has lived in Quincy for 25 years. “I’ve seen the ag side; now I get to see the tech side. We’ve never really had economic balance before.”
The server farms employ up to 500 people in Quincy — a huge boon for a town of about 7,200. Combined, the county’s manufacturing and tech industries already employ more than 3,000 workers — as many or more than longstanding food-processing facilities. Other companies with feet in both ag and tech have noticed the new Quincy, as well: a large Amway botanical-processing facility relocated here from California in 2012.
The difference in local mindset is palpable, Karstetter says: It has created the sort of promising future that, for the first time, is giving young adults who grew up in Grant County — including her three sons — reasons to consider moving home for good after college.
“I think it’s all good,” agrees Curt Morris, chairman of the Quincy Port Commission and a Quincy lifer. “There are some people who have said, ‘Maybe we’re losing our identity.’ But 90 percent of those people have come around” after seeing the new one.
“We’ve come a long ways,” he says. “When my grandfather got here in 1900, it was dust. Now, we’ve got a real gem here in the Columbia Basin.”
THE SPARKLE, of course, does not extend to all remote corners of 2,800-square-mile Grant County, nor all city blocks in Moses Lake. Despite the recent upturn, poverty remains a persistent Achilles’ heel: the county consistently ranks in the top five in Washington for residents below the federal poverty line (18.7 percent in 2013, compared to 14 percent statewide.) It has been an intractable problem for decades, owing mostly to the persistent influx of low-wage, seasonal farmworkers, many of them migrants from Mexico and Central America.
Local governments and service agencies have helped break that cycle for many families, says Jonathan Smith of the Grant County Economic Development Council, citing in particular the efforts of Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. But new workers — now arriving also from Eastern Europe and elsewhere — replace every poorly paid worker who advances to a more stable career.
It’s a serious battle, but one that Big Bend believes it is, in many cases, winning, says Custodio Valencia, 39, director of the college’s TRIO Student Support Services.
The federal program helps students who are the first generation in their families to seek higher education — among Latino students at Big Bend, that’s roughly 86 percent — stick with it, gaining career skills, or a degree transferable to a four-year institution. It’s not easy: Most students feel pressure to work full time while studying. And they inevitably experience culture shock in a college setting.
“They come with this expectation that, ‘I was born into nothing, I need to work my way to something extraordinary,’ ” Valencia says.
Some do; Valencia himself is a graduate of the program he now runs. The son of migrant-worker parents in Royal City, Valencia worked in an Othello French-fry plant for four years out of high school before enrolling at Big Bend. It led him to a four-year degree from Eastern Washington University, and a master’s from WSU Tri-Cities.
“For me, it’s full circle,” he says of his tenure at Big Bend, which has received multiple diversity awards for its critical role as a liaison between the county’s working poor and its developing industries.
CASUAL VISITORS to Grant County today won’t see much that looks radically different.
But some residents say they feel a new buzz. Heather Mason grew up in Moses Lake, moved away to Chicago for college, made a life in the Midwest and, after two kids recently left the nest, has made her own full circle back to the lakeshore. You can find her in her new coffee shop on the corner of Third Avenue and Division Street — in the ground floor of the obligatory, small-town renovated J.C. Penney building.
“It’s just more alive,” she says of Moses Lake. “It feels now like more people are here because they want to be, not because they have to be.”
Moses Lake, which sprang from nothing (1940 population: 326) is that rare place where the town’s entire modern history can be traced in just three generations of families. The people who rode the irrigation boom here are gone. Their children, retired baby boomers like Heather Mason’s Uncle Lew, a former naval officer, state wrestling champion and longtime Big Bend flight instructor, are in their golden years. The Heather Masons of the world — on the cusp of 40 — now hold the reins.
They like a lot of what they’re seeing. Some downtown buildings are getting spruced up, new businesses moving in. One of them is a restaurant with “slow-food” proclivities such as a focus on locally sourced products. For a town home to businesses with names like “Basic American Foods,” that’s a sea change.
Like its mini-industrial overhaul, Grant County’s accompanying cultural revolution plays out silently. Just as well, some say; let’s face it, the place still has plenty of growing up to do, and the to-do list is long. Locals — especially those moving in from God-awful places like Silicon Valley — love being able to buy a roomy, lake-view house for $200,000. But many remain impatient for the consumer trappings that come with economic success elsewhere.
Moses Lake, many say, will finally know it has arrived when it gets that unofficial stamp of approval — one-stop shopping. All those fancy, carbon-fiber operations are nice. But to whom do the people of Grant County need to speak to get a lousy Fred Meyer or Costco?
That’s a new beginning everyone could believe in.