The northwest corner of Washington State along the Olympic Peninsula is surprisingly rural. With one road in, bridges that close access in 50 mph winds, and an erratic ferry, Clallam and Jefferson Counties can feel more like an isolated island than a peninsula. Now, opportunity knocks.
Though the massive Olympic National Park provides the corner of Washington State with lush natural resources and fisheries, Olympic Peninsula has significant poverty. While nearby Seattle thrives economically, just across the water, on the Peninsula, things are very different. For one example (though the differences are far more profound), many areas do not have broadband; reception is limited and not all residents have access to even emergency cell phone communication. So when really bad weather hits, self-reliance has to be the rallying cry.
Julie Knott, an employee at the Clallam Economic Development Corporation, goes deeper. “We have 14 Opportunity Zones. We have 14 low-income census tracts, [which] cover almost all of our land geography, which is amazing if you’re managing an opportunity zone project, but it brings to light that we are very much a rural distressed community.”
The Opportunity Zone program created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 provides tax advantages for capital investments in certain low income areas. Not part of any political platform, the program received bipartisan approval and was purely motivated by the hope of eliminating poverty.
As change tends to proceed slowly on the Olympic Peninsula, much of the region has yet to recover from the collapse of its forest industry, some 20 years ago, as well as the economic crisis in 2008. The Opportunity Zone program was a welcome development and when it was revealed that each Native American tribe, city, and county in the area would receive their own vote to select specific zones for investment, they decided to collaborate.
“With little direction and a short timeline, each of our tribes, all of our cities, both counties and both port authorities came together and identified what projects in which low income census tracts they prioritized for investment. Our Department of Commerce helped us work through the challenge. It was very much a heartfelt collaborative effort,” Brian Kuh, Executive Director of EDC Team Jefferson, said.
The effectiveness of the collaboration suddenly became clear when the group submitted its nominations to the Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, and every single zone was confirmed as a qualified opportunity zone.
Birth of ECOZ
The decision was made to operate together as a nonprofit organization called the Emerald Coast Opportunity Zone (ECOZ), prioritizing opportunity-zone projects. The group began with work to raise awareness in the local communities, explaining the program and how it functions, since many rural areas do not have the capacity to respond alone to such opportunities.
Since Native American communities form a large part of ECOZ, the group looked for ways to involve their groupings in everyday economic development meetings. It hosted a state-wide convention with a reception the night before to welcome Native American delegates and ensure that their communities were well represented.
“After that convention, we were really rolling and we had a lot of media coverage about the collaboration between tribes, cities, counties, ports, and citizens that has never been seen before,” Knott said.
The leadership style of ECOZ is being assessed nationally as it has attracted the attention of the Sorenson Impact Foundation and the Economic Impact Group. Kyle Johnson of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe Economic Development Authority said, “ECOZ has attracted attention at the national level. Now we’re part of the conversation designing the incentives that improve our local economies.”
This partnership between tribal and non-tribal entities established 16 months ago has opened many doors for business growth in the area, and the only regret is not having collaborated earlier.
In Washington State, some of the strongest leadership in Opportunity Zones comes from the Native American communities. When asked their reason for joining ECOZ, many of the Native American leaders said that they stepped up simply because they felt welcome. The harmonious relationship that has been cultivated between different groups and cultures is cherished and embraced by all parties involved.
As ECOZ speaks with impact investors about potential investments, it continually finds that there is high interest in rural distressed communities. The problem is that investors are having trouble locating projects, and ECOZ hopes to help close the gap between sources of support and suitable projects.
Carolyn St. James, Chair of the Clallam County Economic Development Corporation and a Planner at the Lower Elwah Klallam Tribe, shared with us an opportunity zone project that’s focused on the housing market on the waterfront in downtown Port Angeles. “It comprises approximately 75 rooms. Our waterfront in Port Angeles is changing dramatically with the plan to construct a nonprofit performing arts and conference center, called the Performing Arts Waterfront Center, which is also a potential Opportunity Zone project.”
Other developments expanding the downtown area include a Native American longhouse project supported by numerous Native American groups in the area, a museum named Fiero Marine Life Center, and a hotel under construction by the Lower Elwah Klallam people.
ECOZ is also working on the Emerald Edge project with the Nature Conservancy to protect the 100-million-acre temperate rain forest along the west coast of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. The project aims to tackle systemic poverty in the area and create sustainable communities, while encouraging the development of young indigenous leaders.
Given the deep rural conditions, it makes sense for Clallam and Jefferson Counties to take an innovative step and join forces in identifying the workforce needs of their region. The employers are primarily small businesses and the two counties are collecting information with a view to aggregating their workforces into one.
Other changes are making themselves felt. The Peninsula College in Port Angeles is currently laying off employees and regrouping to focus on workforce training. The college has reported fewer students enrolling in the past couple of years, particularly international students. “The international student attendance had a 26.5 percent decrease in 2017, and that’s significant because the international students had a big presence here. In the last couple of years, across the nation, we’re seeing fewer of them and we’re not sure why,” Knott said.
The Olympic Peninsula gets significant tourism (3.5 million visitors last year) considering its limited access to highways and ferries. It is clear that the unspoiled beauty of this corner of Washington State is well worth the old-fashioned journey.
Between sea and mountain
The abundance of recreational options include trail hiking, boating, hunting, fishing, and a number of scenic beaches in the summer months. A bicycle trail takes worshipers of the wilderness almost the entire length of the peninsula. This has become a favorite once-in-a-lifetime experience for newlyweds on honeymoon.
A small town called Forks in Washington receives a surprising amount of tourism because it is where the Twilight film series was filmed. Twilight has quite an international following: people who call themselves “Twihards” and fly from all around the world every year to revel in their Twilight world.
“Most of us spend a great deal of time outdoors around here. We are next to the beautiful mountain range and I’ve never lived more than five miles from salt water,” explained a local business woman. The rugged coast is also the scene of a number of exciting racing events.
The Race to Alaska is an annual boat race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. Anyone can enter and compete with only one proviso: the boat cannot use an engine. The 750-mile race is the longest wind- or human-powered race in North America.
The power of collaboration
As varied leaders continue to step up from different groups, ECOZ acquires valuable, fresh insights into how to improve economic development through Opportunity Zones. The collaboration has generated numerous positive projects and established relationships that will last for years to come. The uniqueness of this level of teamwork between non-tribal and tribal groups indicates that there will be plenty more opportunities for growth and improvement and that this corner of Washington State is getting it right.
“We are only beginning to understand the power of our collaboration with the tribes, the cities and the community, and the more that unfolds and the more we learn about it, the more we’re going to find some opportunities that we never imagined existed. For that, we are very excited. The community and partners also are demonstrably excited about this economic development opportunity,” Knott said.