Skagit County in the state of Washington – nestled between Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia – is known worldwide for its year-round natural beauty. From the Cascade Mountains to the Skagit River, to Fidalgo Island and the Samish Bay, this historic county is proving itself to also be a choice for new residents and businesses wanting the amenities of places like Seattle, without the traffic, congestion and high costs.
Formed in 1883 from Whatcom County, Skagit (rhymes with gadget) was named for the Indian tribe which has inhabited the area long before European-American settlement. Skagit County contains four cities: Anacortes, Burlington, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley, along with a number of towns and some unincorporated areas. Today, it has a population of approximately 120,000 and is growing. The man spearheading that growth is John Sternlicht.
Sternlicht has held the position of executive director with the Economic Development Association of Skagit County (EDASC) since August of this year. He brings a wealth of experience to the position as he was previously the economic development advisor to King County – which includes Seattle and thirty-eight other cities. His twenty-plus years in economic development saw him at California-based non-profit research institute SRI International, where he was active in establishing new facilities in Michigan and Virginia for the seventy-year-old Institute. Previously, he served as General Counsel and Legislative Director of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Commonwealth’s top-ranking economic development organization. He also served concurrently as Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade for Governor (now US Senator) Mark Warner. An attorney with an undergraduate degree in international affairs focusing on Western Europe and Latin America, Sternlicht is also proficient in French, German and Spanish.
“My background in law and policy helps a lot to see the bigger picture and to bring groups together to solve problems,” he says. Sternlicht was hired by the board for a four-year term, and his role is critical to the success Skagit County today and into the future.
EDASC is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to serving Skagit County and making a positive difference in the economy. Among its initiatives, EDASC provides programs and services to enable the community to grow, including business recruitment, retention and expansion; workshops, seminars and individualized business advice for local businesses; and acts as the County’s economic development umbrella organization, collaborating with cities and towns, ports, private industry, non-profits, and education to achieve common goals. As a private non-profit, EDASC is both a 501(c)(6) and a 501(c)(3), making it a membership organization and charitable and educational in nature through the EDASC Foundation. EDASC represents the entire county as the economic development organization.
“We are tasked with everything that involves economic development for the county,” says Sternlicht. “The county doesn’t have its own department of economic development, nor do the cities – they may have someone tasked with that role among others, and we work closely with all the cities and towns to help achieve individual and county-wide goals.”
The Economic Development Association of Skagit County has a staff of six and eighteen board members who rotate annually, serving three-year terms. In addition to aiding business expansion and retention, EDASC provides services for companies wishing to locate in Skagit Valley, and creates valuable networking events where executives and business owners can meet others from virtually every segment of industry in the region. It also hosts a number of classes, workshops and seminars, free of charge to members. The organization presently has between 400 and 500 members representing companies of all sizes.
Soon after taking on his new role, Sternlicht says his first step was to undertake a strategic planning process so everyone “could talk as a community with all its constituent parts and perspectives and determine where they want the county and EDASC to go.”
The county is well established as a center for a number of industry sectors, such as agriculture, aerospace, advanced manufacturing and marine and is home to a number of prominent companies such as the Anacortes-based shipbuilder Dakota Creek Industries, and Trident Seafood Corporation.
Another local success is Janicki Bioenergy, which gained tremendous press coverage when Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates was seen drinking water treated through Janicki’s Omni Processor, which eliminates pathogens to create clean drinking water. The Janicki Bioenergy Omni Processor started as a proof-of-concept project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and can produce up to 10,800 liters of clean drinking water every day. The device will benefit those living in Third World countries in which potable water is scarce.
“One of these prototypes has already been deployed to Dakar, Senegal, and this could be an enormous development for our county and public health worldwide,” says Sternlicht.
Other key industries in the area include aerospace, with well-known entities such as Hexcel Corporation, located at the Bayview Business Park. Established in 1980, Hexcel manufactures engineered components that resemble metallic and non-metallic honeycombs. Its components are used in helicopters, commercial and defense aircraft and aero-engines. Just this past October, Hexcel – a long-term business and top employer – celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its Burlington plant at the Port of Skagit with yet another expansion. Janicki Industries, a family-owned company founded in 1993 and headquartered in Sedro-Woolley, also is a leading manufacturer of advanced composites, metals, precision parts and tooling for aerospace, marine, energy, military and transportation customers.
Another prominent business choosing Skagit County is Paccar, a world leader in the innovative design, manufacturing and customer support of a range of light, medium and heavy-duty trucks under the Peterbilt, DAF and Kenworth nameplates. Paccar Technical Center is located in the heart of Mount Vernon, and over the years, Paccar has provided a number of grants to The Skagit Land Trust to help protect and preserve its 6,600 acres and thirty miles of shoreline.
“Agriculture is a big part of our tradition and a big part of our economy,” comments Sternlicht, “but we also have a significant manufacturing presence, some of it related to agriculture and marine and fisheries.”
EDASC has identified a number of industries for growth and is focusing on advanced/high-tech manufacturing, the marine industry, and aerospace-related industries to complement nearby aircraft giant Boeing.
Skagit Valley is internationally known for its native forests, abundant wildlife and scenic rivers, making it a popular tourist destination for both American and Canadian visitors. While welcoming businesses, new residents and tourists to an area is not normally within the purview of economic development associations, EDASC recognizes that there is value in this. “In addition, tourism is important here, and I think that is something that economic development needs to pay attention to as well,” says Sternlicht, who want to see a more unified tourism effort for the area.
“I think it would be natural for [tourists] to say, ‘This is a place where I’d love to live, and I’d love to stay, and I can see establishing our business here.’ Traditionally, in economic development, you recruited industries, and you did that based on having a piece of land for them to occupy. And I would say economic development is somewhat inverted now from what it used to be; the workforce is now the primary thing companies are looking for, and the workforce wants to live in places that are appealing, and have amenities they want and quality of life that they want. So in a way, it is incumbent on an economic development association to make sure their area is someplace that is desirable to live for the workforce and the companies.”
Sternlicht and EDASC have met with many people around the county, including land developers, builders and brokers and are creating an inventory of industrial lands. These will be housed on the EDASC website, so it can effectively act as a clearinghouse of information. In addition to business parks, the area is home to two ports – highly important entities for economic development – owning airports and other lands primed for development.
Realizing the importance of meeting the workforce needs of existing and new businesses, EDASC is also heavily involved in efforts such as the Workforce Development Council and Skagit Valley College, which offers primarily vocational training and two-year degrees.
“They are wonderful sources for programs that will add to our workforce and the skills of our workforce,” he says. At the college level, courses include craft beer brewing to support the needs of the area’s growing local beer market. Additionally, Leadership Skagit – a program established through the EDASC Foundation – is enormously popular and focuses on promoting leadership roles in business. NextTech Skagit and NextExec focus on technology growth to complement the 2,500 high-tech employees in Skagit County and expand the industry. The NextExec program provides opportunities for the networking and mentoring of a new generation of business executives, with people stepping into leadership roles in their companies.
Executive Director Sternlicht says EDASC will present the goals of its strategic planning process in February, at its economic forecast dinner. “What I would like to see, is for us to become the premier development organization for the county, with an active recruitment program across the United States and globally, and working to not only add to the industries that we’ve targeted, but to the workforce and to the wealth and health of the community at large.”