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Spokane area’s grand tech plan departed with HP

When ground on a Liberty Lake hillside was broken in 1979 for a Hewlett-Packard Co. manufacturing plant, visions of Silicon Valley version 1.whatever tantalized local economic development officials.

As many as 10 more buildings were expected to sprout around it on a 150-acre campus where 8,000 workers would design and assemble products on the frontiers of high-technology. Better still, says Bill Main Jr., the name and prestige of HP would attract other high-tech companies that together would break the Spokane region’s traditional reliance on cyclical resource industries.

The plants would provide jobs, and the workers would buy homes in the Main family’s Homestead development, then the largest public utility district in Washington, he says. And HP participation was critical to the formation of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District.

Only part of the grand vision was realized.

Homegrown ISC Systems Inc. built a big plant at the corner of Appleway and Liberty Lake Road. Altek moved into a new facility not far down Appleway. President Mike Marzetta remembers the way new housing gradually crept over the hill between the lake and Interstate 90.

The electronics industry did become an economic mainstay, adding jobs during the 1990s despite the decision by Key Tronic to move much of its manufacturing to Mexico, and the sad diminution of ISC as it became a piece of Olivetti, then Wang, then Getronics and, earlier this year, Compu.Com.

According to the Washington Employment Security Department, by 2000 the industry employed 6,832, not including hundreds of temporary workers on the line at HP and elsewhere. Human resources manager Fred Krassowski says the plant was on three shifts, with about 2,000 permanent and temporary workers. It was hard to find a parking spot, he says.

But by then HP had spun off Agilent Technologies, and with it the Liberty Lake plant. And when the dot-com bomb exploded in 2001, the layoffs began, starting with the first-ever in August. The company soon announced it would close the plant’s printed circuit board operations and terminate another 530 workers.

By this October, Krassowski says, there will be slightly more than 100 left in a 250,000-square-foot building engineered to support two more just like it. Ghost factories.

The building is for sale, priced to go at $10.5 million. Krassowski says the remaining core of Agilent workers could remain in the building or move out, depending on the plans of the buyer – when one steps forward.

“It’s a wonderful building,” he says. “For the right tenant, it’s great.”

As for the departing workers, Krassowski says he has been pleased by the initiative shown by many employees leaving early to work on their own businesses, and requests for Agilent talent from other Spokane high-tech companies. Direct electronics-related employment is off one-third from the 2000 peak in the most recent state tally, to 4,750, but the number of electronics firms – mostly local – has decreased by only one-tenth, to 172.

Unfortunately, the closure later this year of Itronix will cut that total by one.

More unfortunate, though, was the loss of iconic Hewlett-Packard 10 years ago.

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