Grant County Economic Development Council turns 30
Brant Mayo, current executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Council.
Charles H. Featherstone
Bob Fancher, former board member and president of the Grant County Economic Development Council, at his desk at Maiers Enterprises out on Wheeler Road in Moses Lake.
Moses Lake real estate developer and property manager for Windermere Jeff Foster outside the building he owns in downtown Moses Lake. Foster was the first treasurer of the Grant County Economic Development Council when it was formed in 1991.
Juliann Dodds, senior Vice President and commercial banking manager for Banner Bank in Moses Lake, with some of the many awards and community recognition certificates she has received over the years. Dodds is a current board member and former president of the Grant County Economic Development Council.
For the Basin Business Journal | May 29, 2021 1:00 AM
MOSES LAKE — Thirty years.
That’s how long the Grant County Economic Development Council has been around, helping keep and attract new business to what is a very large and very diverse county.
“Our mission is to continue the orderly growth of Grant County and improve the quality of life,” said Brant Mayo, the executive director of the EDC.
Marketing Grant County to potential investors and employers is not the easiest job. The county sprawls across the middle of the state — it is nearly 110 miles from Grand Coulee in the far north of the county to Mattawa in the southwest corner, and that isn’t even as far south as Grant County goes.
And while much of the county is devoted to farming, businesses are as varied as potato processing, chemicals, beer brewing, to the large data centers that make keeping information in “the cloud” possible, aircraft flight testing, high-tech manufacturing of mechanical lifts, lightweight carbon fiber, world-class silicon for solar panels and computer chips, and if all goes well, soon the testing of rocket engines.
“We’re extremely diverse. Our beginnings were in agriculture and food processing, but we’ve expanded to aerospace and data clusters,” Mayo said. “It blows me away all the time.”
It was not an accident. It was the result of a great deal of careful and deliberate work combined with an aggressive marketing of the county’s natural advantages — such as inexpensive hydroelectric power — and the kind of luck made possible by a lot of hard work.
Economic development — retaining current businesses and attracting new ones — is a cutthroat business, with states and localities across the country fighting hard to offer incentives like tax breaks to attract new business. Washington state law doesn’t allow localities to do that, and limits what the state can do.
“We’ve lost quite a few prospects to South Carolina and Texas,” said local real estate developer Bob Fancher, who served on the original EDC board and then as president in the late 1990s. “They have great incentives. That’s the biggest thing we face.”
But it hasn’t appeared to dampen interest in Grant County one bit. Mayo told members of the EDC board in January 2020, that the EDC had reached a point where it didn’t even need to go looking for businesses interested in Grant County.
They were coming to the EDC. Unsolicited.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to much of that, Mayo added, but it was only temporary. In the last few months, the flood of business interest has resumed.
“We are one of the busiest (economic development organizations) in the state,” Mayo said. “We have 25 live projects throughout the county, and we’re very encouraged.”
Mayo also said it helps that because of global supply problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the eruption of the U.S.-China trade war in early 2018 by President Donald Trump, a number companies are looking to restart manufacturing in the United States.
“It’s opened eyes to what’s possible,” Mayo said. “We have land, power, road and rail access already in our favor.”
It’s quite a change from 30 years ago.
“We really had no recruiting organization,” said real estate developer Bob Fancher, a founding EDC board member who served as president during the late 1990s. “The Port of Moses Lake was the only one doing that, and not very aggressively.”
It took a lot of persistent effort, Fancher said, to convince businesses and governments across the county the EDC was serious. But it didn’t take long, he said, and soon “everybody was on board.”
Still, there were concerns from Ephrata, Warden and Quincy the newly formed EDC would focus exclusively on Moses Lake, according to Jeff Foster, the EDC’s first treasurer and currently a broker and property manager for Windermere in Moses Lake.
It’s why the EDC’s first offices were in the basement of the Grant County courthouse in Ephrata, Foster said.
“And I remember the purpose of the EDC was to try and help promote the whole county,” Foster said. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of meetings early on trying to convince the various representatives from those communities that it was going to be whatever was best for the business coming to Grant County.”
Fancher said the EDC’s first big victory was in 1998, when Redmond, Washington-based Genie Industries decided to locate a production facility in Moses Lake.
“Genie was our first major success,” Fancher said. “They wanted to build their own campus on 1,000 acres south of I-90.”
Instead, Genie — which was acquired by Connecticut-based manufacturer Terex in 2002 — opted to base itself out at the Port of Moses Lake in what were the U.S. Air Force B-52 hangars.
Genie is now the county’s largest private employer, with a workforce of 743, according to the EDC web site.
Fancher also said the EDC worked closely with National Frozen Foods Corp. to help that company open facilities in both Moses Lake and Quincy, and then later with the Port of Quincy as the first data centers began to arrive, and is now much more actively recruiting businesses to towns like Mattawa and Royal City.
“There are tensions,” Mayo explained. “We continue to make sure we’re representing the entire county.”
With business investment comes a demand for workers, and that is something the EDC spends a lot of time working on, Mayo said. Because economic growth is the means to another end — making sure families can live close and children and grandchildren don’t have to leave the Columbia Basin to create meaningful and happy lives for themselves.
“When I first moved here, there were not many jobs outside agriculture,” said Juliann Dodds, senior vice president and commercial banking manager for Banner Bank in Moses Lake and a current EDC board member. “I’ve been here 24 years, and the EDC’s projects have brought family wage jobs to the Basin to allow our kids to come home and have good jobs if they want to.”
“I think that’s been very beneficial,” she added.
Dodds said the EDC has been very good at working with Big Bend Community College to create programs that train people for the jobs now available in Grant County. Because the manufacturing capacity that has emerged here over the last three decades is building on itself, and is now helping to develop the employee base, Dodds said.
Because “them that has, gets,” Dodds said.
There has even been a silver lining with the pandemic, Dodds added, as it has connected the EDC to many smaller companies as the organizations have accepted and processed the first round of state grants for aid.
“We have been very focused helping large companies come and expand to Grant County,” she said. “COVID has helped us to work with small business owners, and they have seen benefit of what the EDC can do for them as well.”
Mayo said the EDC is also learning to focus on helping businesses that are already here stay and expand, something the organization has not been as focused on as it should have been.
“It’s changing the impact and direction of the EDC,” he said. “80-85% of growth comes from existing businesses, and we knew we needed to get better at that.”
Fancher said the expansion of Moses Lake from a town of around 10,000 people to a city of nearly 24,000 over the last two decades is largely the result of the EDC’s work.
“If they keep going down the path they’ve been going, and doing the things they’ve been doing, I fully expect it will keep going,” he said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at email@example.com.