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It must seem to many people that Cowlitz County is always in the midst of an economic recovery. The recession that began in 2007 hit the community hard, but signs of recovery are evident. Historically, the local rate of unemployment runs 2% to 3% higher than the balance of the state of Washington. For many years, the local economy was singularly dependent upon natural resources and lacks the diverse employment opportunities where job loss in an individual sector can be made up in another. Jobs and income are an important determinant of health.

The Washington State Department of Employment Security tracks which occupations or jobs are being filled and where there could be opportunity for employment in the future. Cowlitz County workers have a strong reputation for hard work and work ethics, but some of the jobs today are better suited for workers with technological experience.

Many workers are eager to find and keep a family living wage job. The median hourly wage for Cowlitz County is $20.28 an hour, while the rate for the state is more than two dollars higher. If King County is excluded from the formula, then Cowlitz County compares well to the state median hourly wage of $19.57. While manufacturing and construction provide some of the highest hourly wages in the County, that sector lost the most jobs in the latest recession. By mid-2013, construction was playing a big part in the local recovery, adding several hundred jobs. One very positive sign is Cowlitz County business payrolls have expanded by 5.4% last year, compared to the State expansion of 3.3%.

In the last decade, manufacturing lost nearly 2,400 jobs. There has been a steady expansion in the past three years, adding 700 jobs for a total of 6,600 at the end of 2014. The American Community Survey estimates that 21.8% of local jobs are in educational services, healthcare and social assistance, while manufacturing at 14.6% is the second highest occupation. Male-dominated industries included construction at 81.1%, manufacturing at 79.6%, and wholesale trade at 76%. Female dominated industries include healthcare and social assistance with 83.5%, finance and insurance at 80.9%, and educational services at 74.1%.

The community and local schools are working together to develop a more technologically savvy workforce in the future. Many programs for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are being offered. The age range for these programs runs from preschool up through students in the community college. That effort could help create the workforce needed in our future.

A troubling factor with the economy is the continued high rate of poverty, especially for families with children. More than 30% of the population receives some type of state benefit, and adults are now being dropped from the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) because they have exhausted the time allowed to be on the program. While the community continues to recover lost jobs, the overall civilian labor force has shrunk. In February 2012, the Civilian Labor Force in Cowlitz County was 43,690 with a total employment of 38,890.  Unemployment ran at 4,800 with a rate of 11%. For the same period in 2014, the Civilian Labor Force dropped to a total of 41,400 workers, with 37,720 employed, and 3,680 unemployed, for a rate of 8.9%. A similar reduction has been seen with the state’s labor force. This could be the culmination of workers retiring or simply giving up looking for work.

In the current economy, younger workers are still struggling to recover from job loss. Teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 30% and jobs held by 19 to 20-year-olds dropped by 20% during the past recession. Older workers continue to dominate the labor force with 23.5% of the jobs held by those age 55 and over. Only 12.8% of local jobs were held by workers under 25 years of age, according to Scott Bailey, Regional Labor Economist for the Employment Security Department.

The local median household income estimated for 2014 was $45,403, lower than the state rate of $55,686. This trend goes back at least 25 years. By comparison, few counties exceed the state rate. Those that do are Benton, King, Kitsap, Snohomish, and Spokane. By excluding these counties Cowlitz County then ranks seventh for median household income.

Poverty, however, continues to be a major burden for families, especially those with children. The 2009-2013 American Community Survey, 5-year Estimates finds that 12.4% of Cowlitz County families live in poverty, compared to 9% for Washington State. For families with related children under 18 years of age, the rate jumps to 22.3% and tops out at 34.5% for families with related children under five years only. Being a single female head of household carries a number of stigmas, but in particular is the rate of poverty. For all families with a female head of household and no husband present, 40.5% are living in poverty.  For those with children under 18 years the rate jumps to 51%, and if there are only children five and under in the household, the rate is 64.1%. This is significantly higher than the state rate of 48%. The county has the unfortunate position of being in fourth for the number of children living in single-parent households at 37%. Poverty and household status creates barriers to determinants of health.

The rate of unemployment and poverty alone give the community a larger pool of potential workforce. Lower Columbia College and local school districts collaborate on career and vocational education programs which help youth be job ready after graduation. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center, for several years, has offered a youth mentorship program that gives at risk youth an opportunity to learn jobs in the hospital while remaining in school. The students are required to save one third of their wages, which is kept by the hospital, and then matched for scholarships for these youths to continue their education. While the program is successful, it can only reach a modest number of students each year. This model has been embraced by the Community Health Improvement Planning steering committee that is working to encourage other employers and funders to support a mentorship model.

Business leaders remain optimistic on new and expanding job opportunities in the County. In the past year, Three Rivers Mall has seen the addition of a multiplex theater, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and a nationally known fitness center. On a larger scale, the Port of Kalama is preparing for development of a natural gas processing and exporting plant, which will add $1.8 billion in capital investment, construction and jobs. The Port is also moving to create a larger business park. In doing so, it is also building the Haydu Park for the community which will feature an expo center, ball fields and tennis courts.

Revitalization of downtown economies is also underway. The City of Castle rock has completed the redevelopment of their streets and business district, making it not only more attractive for customers, but also attracting new businesses. The City of Longview has been aggressively promoting the downtown business core with the first phase of its streetscape projects, which improves pedestrian access and safety, and will continue development of an additional section later this year. Businesses in downtown Longview has reenergized and reorganized as the Longview Downtown Partnership is developing promotions and events to strengthen the economy in the business sector. The City of Kalama has benefited from the work of Envision Kalama for downtown beautification. Woodland and Kelso continue to provide family oriented community events such as the Planters Day and the Highlanders Festival. A growing event is a marathon held in Woodland which serves as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. This will continue to grow and bring more tourists and business to the local community.

The challenge for local leaders will be to match the available workforce with the new jobs being created in Cowlitz County. The community has already benefited from the collaborative work for economic development led by the Cowlitz EDC, Cowlitz County Commissioners, ports, and cities. A bright economic future can remove a number of barriers to health.

Call to Action - Personal: 
  • Support local businesses by shopping at local businesses
  • Practice debt management and asset building
  • Support volunteer efforts for job training and basic skills
Call to Action - Community: 
  • Continue efforts of Cowlitz EDC to implement quality of place
  • Encourage businesses to hire local workers
  • Provide internships and training positions in local businesses for students
  • Include basic employment skills training in career development training programs
  • Work with employers to allow employees to attend college classes during work hours
  • Encourage public/private investments in community development projects
Call to Action - Policy Makers: 
  • Encourage expansion of business and recreation opportunities with Mt. St. Helens
  • Create more  living wage jobs
  • Promote state business incentives and tax exemption
  • Fund STEM (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills training in local schools
  • Support efforts to build and maintain affordable housing
  • Ensure collaboration between colleges and schools to offer vocational training programs
  • Limit expansion of check cashing/quick loan businesses

Success Stories

Mount Saint Helens Highway/SR 504 Corridor
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The transfer of ownership of the U.S. Forest Service’s SR504 power line to Cowlitz PUD is expected to open the Mount Saint Helens Highway corridor to economic development. The power line was owned by the Forest Service since the eruption in 1980, and they were not able to provide public power to other entities. With the completion of the transfer to Cowlitz PUD, power will be available to all, a necessary step for the economic revitalization of the area.

Port of Kalama
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Attracting NW Innovation Works $1.8 billion methanol project, a $200 million expansion project at the Temco grain terminal, which included a $7 million rail expansion project paid for by the Port, and working with the City of Kalama to annex property for the creation of the Spencer Creek Business Park along Kalama River Road at the former site of the Kalama Fairgrounds, are all projects recently completed or underway at the Port of Kalama. These businesses all invest in the community and provide family wage jobs for trained employees. To promote quality of place and a healthy community, the Port of Kalama is currently creating Haydu Park. This park features baseball, softball and soccer fields, tennis courts, picnic area, riding area, and a new expo building for use by the Kalama Fair and other activities.

Longview Downtown Revitalization
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Attractive sidewalks with pavers, colored concrete crosswalks, pedestrian bulb-outs, new trees, and additional street lighting, irrigation and other features were added to a five block stretch of Commerce Avenue in Longview last year. Calling the $1.8 million project “a re-investment in our community” the project should encourage people to visit downtown, stay longer and come pack more often. Attracting new businesses, creating jobs and improving the lives of residents and businesses already in the area are all benefits of the downtown beautification. During the construction phase of the project, coordinating with businesses to minimize disruption and maintain accesses to local businesses was given a large amount of attention and was said to be successful. The streetscape of the 1300 block of Commerce Avenue is next to see improvements underway by year’s end.

Castle Rock America in Bloom
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On any given day, members of the Castle Rock America in Bloom Team can be found planting and caring for the hanging baskets, planters and beautiful landscaping features for which it has become known nationally. As part of the town’s vision for its future, the Bloom Team has helped turn what many could describe as bare, muddy or ugly into beautifully landscaped areas alive with flowers, native plants, art and other features. Hanging baskets and planters line the streets and the effort is bringing visitors to the community. The flowers are definitely an effort embraced by the whole community. The businesses sponsor and water the baskets in front of their place of business, high school students built planter boxes and create the hanging baskets, volunteers turn out for clean up days and planting days no matter the weather and because with the flowers comes a sense of pride and ownership, everyone works together to keep the whole community looking nice. These efforts have not gone unnoticed by those outside the community. This past year, America in Bloom presented Castle Rock Bloom Team Leader, Nancy Chennault with its 2014 Community Champion Award at its national symposium in Philadelphia. The city also earned the Best Hanging Baskets/Containers Award and received Special Recognition for Floral Displays. Its Jackson Hole storm water retention pond renovation also received a Special Mention.

Castle Rock Downtown Development
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More than 30% of storefronts in downtown Castle Rock stood vacant a few years ago. Today, less than 10% are empty. The difference can be attributed almost entirely to the city, business owners, community members, schools and volunteers such as America in Bloom, working together to create a city they can be proud of, seen in well maintained streets, cared for store fronts, beautiful landscaping and flowers everywhere. The change started as a grassroots effort among local businesses to redo Cowlitz Street and draw people to town. This vision led to improved or new trails, parks, and boat launch, even a mountain biking complex. Stamped concrete sidewalks that resemble wooden planks and river rock at the intersections were built, street lighting was added from the trails through downtown, and everywhere there are landscape features, highlighting all kinds of northwest plants including roses, mountain hemlock, daffodils, crocus and the town’s signature red tulip. Infrastructure under the street was improved, making them bigger and installing conduit so future technology could be implemented without tearing up the roads. Owners have taken pride in this and want to be a part of the whole picture, so many have painted and made their own storefronts look good. Plus businesses sponsor planters in front of their business and take care of watering them. The hanging baskets are labeled with the name of the student who grew it, so there is a pride of ownership. Also, those involved in new construction, even along the freeway, have voluntarily taken it upon themselves to look like they belong in Castle Rock.