I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion with several civic leaders about how the pandemic has impacted our valley, how organizations have adapted and opportunities that they see emerging for our valley.

This conversation was part of the Our Valley, Stronger community outreach initiative by Our Valley, Our Future and it was hosted by our friends at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

One of the things that jumped out at me as we talked about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is how our businesses and other organizations adapted on the fly to meet the uncertainties and figure out ways to continue serving customers and the community. Some surprises and important insights emerged from the discussion.

Our conversation, which can be viewed by accessing the museum’s Facebook page and searching for “moving into the future,” included Rob Blakey of Stemilt, Stacy Luckensmeyer of Wenatchee Valley College, Jim Kuntz of the Chelan-Douglas Regional Port, Kirk Hudson of Chelan County PUD, Richard DeRock of Link Transit and Karen Francis-McWhite of the state Department of Commerce.

One surprise is that Link Transit’s ridership numbers did not drop off as dramatically as other transit systems, according to DeRock. The system is at 65 percent of what it was pre-COVID-19, compared to 20 percent in New York City.

What this tells us, said DeRock, is the tremendous amount of poverty in our valley and how essential transit is to get people to work, medical appointments, grocery shopping and the like.

Kuntz identified another surprise. He had anticipated the two counties might lose 10 percent of its jobs with the shutdown, but the numbers show that 2,900 jobs were lost, which translates to between 5 and 6 percent About 70 percent of those jobs were in the leisure and hospitality sector.

At Chelan County PUD, said Hudson, the focus was on figuring out how to keep the critical infrastructure of electricity, water, wastewater and the like up and running. They accomplished that in part by collaborating with Stemilt and learning how the agricultural company was adapting to the need to keep people safe and continue operations.

Blakey, the head of research and development at Stemilt, said agricultural businesses are “inherently resilient and creative to address everything that policy and nature can throw at us.”

He also gave a nod to the political divide in the region that mirrors what’s happening nationally. Despite that, people came together and figured out ways to keep the economy going.

I think many of us intuitively believe that our valley is an attractive place to be. As Hudson noted, we found out just how many people wanted to come live here during the pandemic. Home purchases from people moving here or buying second homes seemed to accelerate. Another byproduct of the pandemic was the intense pressure that our parks and other recreational amenities experienced.

Luckensmeyer and Francis-McWhite said the digital divide became apparent. With school and businesses going virtual, folks in isolated areas or with multiple kids in a household trying to access their classwork, it demonstrated that we need to continue working on equitable access.

Speaking of access to high-speed Internet, the PUD stepped up and worked with school districts to fire up hot spots so that kids could continue learning. It’s just one more example of seeing a need and stepping into the fray.

The port district pivoted rather dramatically so that it could help small businesses survive. They sent out staff to communities to help small businesses fill out paperwork for government assistance and ended up getting $4.2 million into their hands. They also pushed hard for equity by reaching out to the Latino community. Twenty-six percent of the funds went to minority-owned businesses and 46 percent went to women-owned businesses, Kuntz said.

One of the glaring challenges that we will continue to face is the lack of child care, Francis-McWhite pointed out. That lack will limit the ability of employers to attract and retain employees in this market.

Looking to the future, several things were discussed, including

  • Increasing automation in the agricultural industry
  • Major investments in Pangborn Memorial Airport that will enhance winter reliability
  • An educational system that will be increasingly digital and provide new opportunity for workforce training and retraining
  • The potential of data centers that can be economic game changers for our counties in terms of living wage jobs and property tax to support our communities
  • Clean power and innovation in transportation electrification that Link Transit has pioneered nationally
  • That people matter and that the changes that are coming need to accommodate that fact

What struck me about our discussion was the deep devotion to community every single person demonstrated. These are leaders who see community success and business success as intertwined and interdependent.

That gives me great hope and confidence as we meet the challenges ahead.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or (509) 665-1162.

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