The extremes get the notice — the boom towns and the collapsing economies — but a case could be made that Kittitas County’s curiously stable or stuttering (depending on viewpoint) economy deserves more attention.

We are neighbors to one of the most vibrant economies in the nation with King County. We border Grant County with its impressive track record of job creation.

So, what’s up with Kittitas County? Are we just a drive-through county?

Economic growth/development/health is in the spotlight again as part of the Kittitas County Commissioner District 1 race. The Ellensburg Development Business Authority also is focused on the issue with CenterFuse, a nine-member governing board appointed by the Ellensburg City Council with the purpose of bringing in family wage jobs and growing the median family income.

If you read the monthly state Employment Security Department report you’ll see Kittitas County’s unemployment rate slowly trending up in year-to-year data. The rate itself remains strong historically speaking but questions arise if Kittitas County is adequately participating in this state’s economic prosperity.

There are encouraging numbers in the report — construction has seen steady gains — but there’s no one category of job growth surge that stands out.

This is not a new story. Kittitas County’s economy with its dependence on public sector (Central Washington University primarily) jobs has long been more steady than spectacular.

Traditionally, agriculture has been part of the mix, and in recent decades the tourism-centered economy has gained strength.

The question is whether we have an economy to meet our contemporary needs. On the basic level, we need to be able to afford shelter and food. A look at the housing prices compared to local wages indicates there’s a growing gap.

If you are in the crowd who loves the county the way it is and would rather not see job growth, the question is whether the status quo is sustainable.

If we like this mix of jobs and are willing to live with the unspectacular are we putting ourselves in the position where a growing number of people who work and live in the county cannot afford housing — either to rent or to buy.

That situation, if it worsens, may not necessarily set off the warning sirens you think it would, because this county’s one area of growth is people working jobs based outside of the county. That can mean commuters or people with jobs that allow them to work remotely. For those people, the lack of local wages keeping pace is not an issue.

This may not be a popular question with all the focus on economic growth by office seekers and professionals/volunteers in the field, but how much can we influence or control the county’s economic development? Are we ancillary to growth counties — namely providing bedroom communities, recreation, etc.?

That will be a question to discuss as campaigns for multiple offices — county commission, city councils and legislative district — play out over the next few months. We may not catch outside notice with our economy, but as residents we have a vested interest.


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