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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bert Caldwell: Economist discovers resilient region

Cross the Spokane County line heading north, south or west, and you enter Arum Kone territory,

As regional economist since February 2008, Kone has been taking the pulse of a nine-county area he likens to North Idaho because of its substantial dependence on natural resources, about which he knows something. The Portland native spent eight years in Kodiak, Alaska, before moving into his Walla Walla office.

He and his wife, an Alaska native, were visiting friends in Walla Walla as they considered putting down new roots before their daughter began school. After a bike trip downtown, his wife declared, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to live here.”

And so they do.

Kone characterizes the mostly farm- or forestry-founded economies in the counties – ranging from Asotin and Walla Walla at the south end to Ferry and Pend Oreille in the north – as “frontier” in that much of what is produced is shipped elsewhere for processing. The volume of exports “startled” him, he says.

The region is peopled with entrepreneurs, many of whom turn to their own resources out of necessity.

Only in Whitman County, with 14 percent sole proprietors, does the share fall below the Washington average of 18 percent. The easy explanation: the huge payrolls of Washington State University and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. In Adams and Ferry counties, 27 percent do for themselves.

And those are nonagriculture numbers. Add farmers and loggers – forestry is considered agriculture – and the percentages climb into the mid-30s for five of the nine counties, compared with 19 percent for the state.

Not surprisingly, how many work out of their homes swings with the vagaries of the commodity markets, Kone notes.

When the squeeze is on, as it is now, some will put themselves in business as real estate agents. Anyone with a truck might try hauling or get into freelance construction work, taking what they can get in payment.

“It doesn’t necessarily equate to living wages,” Kone says. “It does show a remarkable resiliency in getting by.”

The economic stabilizers are government jobs, Social Security and other fixed-income payments. In every county but Whitman, the proportion of those 65 and older is over the state average of 11.2 percent, substantially so in Lincoln County, for example.

Kone says the tradeoff is very slow growth, because there are few younger workers to man even a small manufacturing facility. They migrate to urban centers such as Spokane, where they have fattened the local unemployment rolls.

Until the past few months, Kone says he felt somewhat removed from the duress afflicting Washington because Walla Walla and neighboring counties remained relatively healthy. Even construction was holding up, thanks to the wineries and associated development feeding, and feeding off of, the region’s growing reputation for fine wines.

What processing does occur on locally grown produce has been a strength, too.

More growth is in the wind. The Lower Snake River Wind Energy Project will stipple Garfield and Columbia counties with almost 800 more windmills, creating up to 200 construction and 75 permanent jobs. The giant turbines also generate substantial income for fortunate landowners and county coffers.

Looking ahead, Kone wants to see if Walla Walla’s potential as a tourist destination comes to fruition. And whether its success spreads to other areas.

He’s taking a proprietary interest.

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