Charting a New Course in Economic Development

Greater Grays Harbor, Inc.
Written by Mark Golombek

Greater Grays Harbor Inc. is located in Aberdeen, Washington and acts as the regional chamber of commerce, economic development council and visitor information center for the area. Its goal is to help businesses in any industry and of any size to realize their full potential.
Being a member of Greater Grays Harbor enables any company to have its interests promoted and opportunities increased by connecting it to the resources it needs and the opportunities it wants. We spoke with Chief Executive Officer Dru Garson to learn more.

The chamber of commerce for the region dates back over one hundred years. It was once two separate chambers that joined forces when both Aberdeen and Hoquiam Chambers merged in 1961. The economic development council started as an effort to bring professional economic development services to Grays Harbor in the 1980s. This economic development council eventually became the designated Associate Development Organization for the region and is recognized and partially funded by the state. In 2012, both of those organizations merged with the intention of providing business services and economic development opportunities to the 72,000 residents of the Grays Harbor area.

“This merger occurred in 2012,” explains Garson. “Part of the advantage is in leveraging the unique aspects of both organizations to serve businesses of all sizes. Between the communities and the county, I think it has been a good arrangement in that it is addressing all the needs of the business community.”

Greater Grays Harbor Inc. provides a variety of programs, services and events that promote its business community. It advocates on behalf of those communities with the local, state and national levels of government and provides networking opportunities and additional exposure for its businesses. It also develops and implements strategies to improve the economic health and business climate in the county. The result is the creation and retention of quality employment opportunities.

“We partner with local businesses and industries, community groups and government at the local, regional, state and national levels to encourage economic development, business growth, professional development and help promote efforts in that position,” Garson says. “Grays Harbor is a great place to live, work and play.”

Foreign direct investment is one aspect of Greater Grays Harbor’s plan to attract new companies to Grays Harbor. Within the global environment, there are many factors to consider and the council looks at things from a long-term basis. International trends are considered to ascertain whether or not to include nations in the economic plans of the region. As foreign investors look to invest in Washington State, the Council works with them to identify properties that meet their needs.

Foreign direct investment from China is, and has been, an opportunity under Garson’s watch and under previous CEOs of the council. As with any investment opportunity, many issues have to be examined such as return on investments, assurances of job creation and opportunity for success. Does the investment represent a reasonable return? Does it have a specific timeline? This can be a tricky endeavor as China’s economy wavers between success and recession. “It is definitely a concern, especially as we look at the region’s export potential through the Port of Grays Harbor.” There is a value proposition that drives these decisions involving foreign direct investment and it is a similar outlook for domestic investment.

Oftentimes when dealing with other countries, there may be cultural considerations or perceptions that need to be taken into consideration. For example, there may be a different perspective on real estate ownership than in the U.S., especially when it comes to local land use regulations.

“Ownership may have a different meaning within one culture as what specifically they can do or use their land for. Basically, when working with all these foreign direct investment opportunities, we really have to be aware and address these cultural differences.” However, it isn’t just dealing with cultural differences. Greater Grays Harbor Inc. also has to work through federal entities in terms of obtaining visas and site inspections or other preliminary work that may need to be undertaken.

“There is a lot of work behind the scenes just to be able to facilitate their entry here, or to be able to work on some of these projects. A host of different factors go into that. The hoops we have to jump through can be a detriment to these types of projects and activities, making it a little more difficult to help facilitate these projects.”

That said, Garson emphasized that federal representatives have been great partners with which to work. Government representatives have been excellent intermediaries in brokering many visits of foreign companies to Grays Harbor County and have gone out of their way to help facilitate these invitations.

There are other measures in place to ensure the county’s success. Currently, Greater Grays Harbor Inc. is implementing a business retention and expansion program. It is working to aid in the retention of existing businesses by providing them tools and resources to grow and expand. There are also complementary revitalization efforts that are occurring in the historic downtown areas.

An economic development advisory committee was recently formed with representatives at the state, county and local level. The advisory committee is there to identify and address any obstacles or impediments to business growth or expansion in the county, especially as it relates to the regulatory environment or permits.

There are several factors influencing the strength and positioning of the region. Firstly, there is strong and robust economic activity within the sectors of exports, health services and tourism. Grays Harbor is a volume leader in several trade segments.

Grays Harbor is strategically located about one and a half vessel hours from open ocean and is the closest mainland port to the Pacific Rim. The Westport Marina facility at the Port of Grays Harbor is Washington’s leading commercial fish landing port. The soybean and automobile exports at the deepwater marine terminals in Aberdeen and Hoquiam lead the West Coast in shipment volumes.

“We have some diversification efforts, where, over the past fifteen years, the port has successfully diversified the cargoes handled at its four deepwater marine terminals, becoming one of the fastest-growing export ports in Washington State,” Garson shares. Those efforts have paid off with a 400 percent growth increase in recent years. The program to attract a diversified cargo mix with partners willing to invest in Grays Harbor will continue to serve as a useful model for the port.

Grays Harbor boasts substantial infrastructure assets. Its port terminals have on-dock rail and warehousing. It is served by the only two-lane highway to the coast north of San Francisco and by Class 1 railroads: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe via its short line, Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad.

The Satsop Business Park has over six hundred acres of development potential, turnkey office space and the two largest buildings in Grays Harbor County which are primed for a variety of manufacturing options. The site also features a new wastewater treatment plant and natural gas throughout the entire park.

“We have a skilled workforce in a dynamic community. Grays Harbor College was recently ranked as the top-rated community college in the state and fifteenth in the country. They are able to rapidly respond to the workforce demands. It is a great family-oriented community with little traffic and an affordable cost of living.”

Grays Harbor is about a two-hour drive from Seattle and two and a half hours from Portland. Conveniently close to natural wonders, surfing and ocean beaches, Grays Harbor has world class salmon and steelhead fishing. Olympic National Park is less than an hour away and has one of only two temperate rainforests in the world. It is the sixth most visited national park in the country.

“We have coastal communities and beach communities that draw a lot of tourism. There are also a lot of recreational opportunities due to our proximity to Olympic National Park with hiking and fishing. There are some fine wineries and many other things for visitors to partake in.”

One of the initiatives currently underway is called The Gateway Center for Enterprise and Tourism which is working with many partners, including the city of Aberdeen and the Aberdeen Revitalization Movement to secure funding through a capital budget appropriation and other sources to construct the facility.. The aim is to build a state of the art, world-class visitor center with a twofold purpose: to provide county-wide visitor information and education to encourage tourism throughout the county.

At the same time, the center will be a one-stop resource for business development planning and community economic development resources within the county. Other interrelated organizations will be incorporated within this facility to provide business and community development services all within the same building.

“The message is that Grays Harbor offers high quality infrastructure that will allow any company, from manufacturing to high tech, the resources to effectively compete in the global market with a great quality of life to attract and keep educated talent.”

The responsive county government is embracing a lean service delivery model and continues to work cooperatively with key agencies and organizations on a local, county, state and federal level. Everything is in place and well planned.

As for the future, Grays Harbor strives to continue as a vibrant community, celebrating its rich manufacturing and natural resources heritage, while being positioned to capitalize and respond to the needs of emerging industries and opportunities. “We will continue with our mission statement, which is working to build and strengthen the business industry for a prosperous community.”



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