OAKESDALE, Wash. – This farming town south of Spokane, population 420, has suffered through the slump of other rural communities across America.
A restaurant bought out by a California developer stands empty across from City Hall. There’s an old filling station at the other end of the street that serves no purpose. The drugstore is boarded up.
“This poor town, we’ve lost a lot of businesses over the years,” Mayor Dennis Palmer said, standing outside City Hall. “It’s just like all the small towns.”
But after four years and $200 million, a wind farm just a short drive west of town may bring change.
First Wind, a Boston-based energy production company, is putting the finishing touches on the Palouse Wind Project. The 58-turbine farm will supply power to 30,000 Avista customers. The project is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving, said Ben Fairbanks, director of Northwest business development for First Wind.
By the end of next week, 37 of the turbines will be on and producing power, Fairbanks said. When completed, the farm will produce 105 megawatts of renewable energy.
But the project is blowing in more than renewable energy – it’s bringing business and tax revenue to Whitman County. When it’s finished, it will generate about $790,000 a year in property taxes.
That’s a total of $13.8 million over the life of the 30-year project, about 67 percent of which is projected to go back into local schools, according to First Wind. In addition to the tax revenues, more than 100 jobs were created during construction of the project, with up to 10 permanent employees.
“We can only hope some of their future maintenance employees will choose to live here in Oakesdale and put their kids through school here,” Palmer said.
Business is up by 10 percent
About 30 jobs have been lost in Oakesdale in recent years because of farm supply businesses closing, driving families to cities with better job prospects, Palmer said.
“We’ve lost a lot of businesses over the years, with farming changing the way it has,” the mayor said.
Business owners in Oakesdale have already benefited from the influx of people and activity created by the construction of the wind farm.
Mike Crossett, owner of Oakesdale’s only grocery store, said his business has increased by about 10 percent since First Wind arrived.
“It just brought more people to town,” said Crossett, who’s owned his grocery store for 32 years.
Washington voters passed Initiative 937 six years ago, requiring power companies to provide more newly developed renewable energy to their customers.
A 9 percent benchmark is coming up in 2016, and with the added wind energy from the Palouse Wind Project and upgrades to hydroelectric dams, Avista will reach that mark, spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said.
“The fact is, we have state mandates to meet, and we will meet the state mandates,” Wuerst said.
‘Something else will take its place’
Palmer pointed out First Wind’s Oakesdale offices; the company’s sign above the library is one of the newest things in town. But at the end of the month, those offices will be vacated. First Wind is setting up offices at the wind farm site.
But there is an end date for the project. Fairbanks said the wind turbines have an expected life span of 30 years, and at the end of that, they can either be upgraded or removed. If they are removed, the land will be restored and plowed again for farm use, erasing any physical record that the turbines were there.
Oakesdale residents know the wind farm is not a permanent solution to their economic troubles. Crossett said the facility has helped his business, but when it’s gone, “something else will take its place.”
Palmer is hopeful, but he’s also realistic.
In his 56 years in Oakesdale, three as mayor, he’s seen hundreds of people leave, businesses close and new, bigger companies take their place. He said the wind farm will help, but the people of Oakesdale always hope for more.
“When I first took over as mayor, one of the first questions that was asked me is, ‘What can we do to get businesses back in Oakesdale?’ ” Palmer said, standing at the site of the wind installation. “And I said, you know, I don’t think there’s anything we can do. It’s just the way the times have changed.”