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Rural economic development: Is this an oxymoron?
I recently finished reviewing the Rural Economic Strategies put out by King County. The strategies document proposes some good programs regarding the promotion of tourism, but it also highlights the lack of input from Snoqualmie Valley residents on strategies that could affect our future.
There is no question that Snoqualmie Valley needs a shot in the arm to help drive economic development. We are a bedroom community with a large percentage of local jobs in the retail and services sectors that do little to provide livable wages. So an attempt by the county executive to come up with some strategies to help us bolster our local economy is a good thing. I applaud his efforts. On the other hand, I wish the county would have actually talked to someone from the Upper Snoqualmie Valley besides North Bend and Snoqualmie city staff members.
The rural strategies document, available on the county's Web site, consistently touts input from rural residents and rural stakeholders. They held three meetings, the closest of which was in Carnation. A total of 120 people attended. Twenty-four of whom, according to the document, were county employees. That means that 96 people represented rural residents, which, according to one letter writer in the document, represents less than 1 percent of the rural population. That, in itself, makes me a bit nervous if these strategies drive policy that affects our "rural character."
The sampling of residents needed to provide valid input was way too small. I also noted that not one of the letter writers providing written input was from the Upper Valley, including Fall City. The economic factors that the Upper Valley contain are different than those of the Lower Valley. We do not have the farmland capacity above the Falls that's found in the Lower Valley. Our surrounding forests are largely owned by a few big corporations.
The strategies tout several stakeholders such as chambers of commerce, etc., but no input was gathered from the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce (SVCC), according to the document. SVCC represents 250 local businesses and, it would seem, could provide some great input on rural economic strategies. I also noticed that the Fall City Community Association did not contribute input. It's likely a city staff member provided the only input to the strategies from our area.
The strategies also use several 10-year-old studies as the basis for recommendations. One is the Farm and Forest Report, done for the county by an outside consultant in 1996. Based on the changes in Snoqualmie over the past 10 years, I would say a 10-year-old report is out of date at best. Another study touted from an area in rural British Columbia to look at home-based businesses had been done in 1996. I'm not sure if that area has changed as much in 10 years as ours has, but if 10-year-old data doesn't add value in the private sector, why should it at the government level?
The other thing that makes me nervous is the focus of jobs. The report highlights that there is industrial acreage available in Snoqualmie Valley that could bring livable-wage jobs. There needs to be a stronger emphasis on this area rather than the current high percentage of retail and service-oriented jobs, which do not pay a living wage.
The report highlights current farms, stating that from Fall City to North Bend there are 57. I couldn't quite tell what constitutes a farm, but it appears that anyone doing any kind of agricultural crops, nurseries or animal boarding qualifies. Is that a true representation of farming in the Upper Valley? One element missing was the number of jobs created relative to farming. Also missing was the amount of revenue these small farms generate in the Upper Valley. I think farming is a great part of the Snoqualmie Valley experience, but is it realistic to think that farming is going to drive economic development in the rural areas when both land prices and property taxes are extremely high?
OK, now to the good news. King County is finally recognizing that tourism is a key ingredient in revitalizing our rural revenues. The economic strategies recognize the need for standard signage and wayfinding. It also recognizes that Snoqualmie Valley could provide a scenic byway as well as tourist-related retail opportunities. The key to success, though, is funding. The county, along with the cities of Snoqualmie and North Bend, as well as the Snoqualmie Tribe, have applied for a grant to fund infrastructure improvements that should lead to more jobs in the area.
The concept for rural economic strategies is a good start. We need to urge the county to talk to more people in our area, though, and not assume that less than 1 percent of the population represents our interests. Let's hope the next iteration of the strategies (touted as a dynamically changing document) has input from Upper Snoqualmie Valley residents and stakeholders other than the staff members of just two cities.