When Al French tilts his ear to Spokane’s West Plains, he hears a giant economic engine roaring to life.
Within 24 months, rapid development will transform the dusty, open landscape in western Spokane County, says French, a county commissioner. New buildings will sprout in sagebrush-covered lots. And with them will come at least 2,000 new jobs.
After decades as Spokane’s low-profile neighbor, the West Plains is suddenly in the spotlight for employment, population growth and commercial development.
Amazon’s fulfillment center is the largest new project to date. The four-story building under construction on Geiger Boulevard is expected to open in the fall, with 1,500 workers and future employment that could peak at 3,000 jobs during the holiday rush.
At Fairchild Air Force Base, 357 new active-duty airmen will begin arriving at the base later this year to support the additional KC-135 aerial refueling tankers coming to the base. The airmen’s staggered arrival will continue through 2020.
Exotic Metals, an aerospace manufacturer in Airway Heights, has released plans for a second building that will double its 150-person workforce. The company expects to add a third building at some point, according to the plans.
Spokane International Airport, meanwhile, has an ambitious goal to recruit Boeing. If the aerospace giant decides to build its new, midmarket airplane in Washington, local officials will pitch a 300-acre site at the airport with rail access, along with Spokane’s skilled manufacturing workforce.
More development is in the pipeline, according to French, a cheerleader for West Plains’ growth. Two nationally known companies have looked at property near Amazon for potential facilities, said French, who expects announcements later this year. Besides industrial growth, new retail outlets, two airport hotels and additional housing are also in the works.
“All of a sudden, the West Plains is where it’s at,” said Toby Broemmeling, director of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce. “We have a lot of developable land. It’s like this perfect, fertile soil for growth.”
Population growth is already strong on the West Plains, and new job growth will accelerate that trend. Along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor, homebuilders and apartment developers have been busy platting new subdivisions and constructing apartments in former fields.
“It remains one part of Spokane County where homes are still relatively affordable,” said Bill Grimes, consulting planner for the city of Airway Heights. “It’s a popular destination for people who want that single-family lifestyle” with three bedrooms, two baths and a lawn.
Airway Heights’ population increased 7.4 percent last year to 9,085 residents. Cheney grew at a more modest rate of 2.7 percent to 12,200.
For decades, West Plains’ economy hummed along on government jobs, Broemmeling said. Cheney had Eastern Washington University. Airway Heights had Fairchild and Airway Heights Corrections Center, a state prison for men. And Medical Lake had Eastern State Hospital.
Casino development by the Kalispel and Spokane tribes helped diversify the economy and bring more visitors to the West Plains. But the surge of private investment in the area is relatively new, Broemmeling said.
For industrial developers, the West Plains’ draw is 5,000 acres of vacant land with easy access to Interstate 90, the airport and rail transportation, French said.
Grimes, who has worked in Airway Heights since 2015, sees parallels between the West Plains and Post Falls’ growth.
Twenty years ago, Post Falls was a sleepy bedroom community to Coeur d’Alene, with land to develop on the Rathdrum Prairie. Affordable acreage drew homebuilders to the city. Post Falls was discovered by people who worked in Spokane but wanted to live in Idaho. The city’s population boomed, and new jobs moved to the area.
Airway Heights is on the cusp of a similar transformation, Grimes said.
“We’re seeing something of a groundswell of pride in Airway Heights,” he said. “There is a budding energy about who the city is and who it wants to be.”
As the West Plains expands, communities there will grapple with issues related to housing, water availability and transportation.
Wooing Boeing and others
Spokane International Airport’s leaders have worked to position the West Plains as an attractive place for companies specializing in warehousing, logistics and aerospace manufacturing. There’s no greater prize to aim for than Boeing.
Several years ago, airport officials developed the 300-acre site plan to compete for another Boeing airplane, whose production eventually went to Renton, said Larry Krauter, the airport’s chief executive officer. Airport officials have worked to refine the site in hopes of competing again for Boeing or another aerospace company.
If planes were assembled at a factory near the airport, “when they needed to, they could fly the finished product away,” Krauter said.
Aside from Boeing, he said there are other manufacturers who could locate on the 300-acre site, including companies that make parts for the Boeing supply chain.
As part of the recruitment effort, Spokane County, the city of Spokane and airport officials are building a $2 million short-line rail that links to the Geiger Spur and runs east across Craig Road onto airport property.
Newman Lake-based Wm. Winkler Co. is building the rail line, which is funded through a state grant awarded to the airport. Construction is expected to be completed next year. The rail extension has a turning radius that could accommodate rail cars carrying plane fuselages.
A transload facility – where shipments are transferred from trucks to rail or vice versa – also is crucial to growing aerospace and shipping industries in the West Plains, French said.
The West Plains-Airport Area Public Development Authority and airport board still need to pick a location for the transload facility as well as a determine how to pay for it.
Planning for housing
Housing isn’t keeping pace with projected job growth, and local leaders say the West Plains now has a deficit of rental units and single-family homes.
About two-thirds of Fairchild Air Force Base’s active-duty airmen live off base. In anticipation of the new airmen arriving, the Air Force conducted a study of rental housing in the Spokane area, said Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson, the 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron commander.
The study identified rental properties available within a 60-minute commute of Fairchild. Apartment vacancies were at 2 percent and the vacancy rate for single-family homes was 1 percent. As a result of the scarcity of rentals, Fairchild is planning to convert hotel-style lodging on the base into dorm rooms. The project will provide housing for 50 single airmen.
Officials in Airway Heights, meanwhile, are considering expanding the city’s urban growth boundaries to obtain more land for housing. City Manager Albert Tripp said rising housing prices are threatening the city’s reputation as an affordable place to live.
“Home prices in the city have been increasing at a faster rate than the county,” he said. “Housing is an important issue for us.”
Most of Spokane County is grappling with low housing inventories and rising home prices, said Dan Lysek, Live Real Estate’s designated broker and owner.
“But, I think the West Plains is hit even harder with what is going on out there,” he said.
As of last week, there were six homes for sale under $200,000 in the West Plains, according to the Spokane Multiple Listing Service.
“A few years ago, there would have been dozens of homes in that price point,” Lysek said. “Even if you go up to $250,000, there’s only 10 homes for sale in the West Plains.”
Planning for water needs
Planning for water needs is a crucial part of the West Plains’ future development. Unlike the city of Spokane, Airway Heights doesn’t tap into the abundant Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.
The aquifer serving Airway Heights is more limited, said Kevin Anderson, the city’s public works director. In fact, “the whole area of the West Plains is not a good place to be if you like a lot of water,” he said.
For Airway Heights, the water situation became even more complicated in 2017 when chemicals found in fire-extinguishing foam were discovered in the city’s water supply.
The pollutants are believed to have seeped into groundwater from a fire training site on the eastern edge of Fairchild. Airway Heights worked out an agreement with the city of Spokane to connect to its water system to provide a source of clean water. The agreement lasts for up to five years.
“Right now, we are purchasing all of our water,” Anderson said. “It’s more than sufficient to meet our current needs and many needs into the future.”
But the agreement with the city of Spokane is temporary. Airway Heights is working with the Air Force on options for addressing the contaminants, and that work should be completed within six months, Anderson said. A water filtration system has been tested and appears to be working, but air bubbles in the treated water produce a milky appearance.
It’s an aesthetic problem, Anderson said, but “it doesn’t give you a lot of confidence.”
To meet future demand, the West Plains might turn to water reuse and aquifer recharge. Airway Heights built a $44 million reclaimed water facility in 2012. The facility treats wastewater and turns it into “almost potable water,” Anderson said.
The city uses the reclaimed water to irrigate parks and control dust at construction sites, but city officials want to expand the uses.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s draft budget contains $1.9 million for infrastructure so the reclaimed water could be used at Airway Heights Corrections Center. It would replace potable water in areas where drinking water isn’t needed.
A stormwater utility, meanwhile, could address drainage issues from seasonal flooding on the West Plains and capture water for aquifer recharge. A yearlong study is underway to evaluate the idea.
Developers are required to build ponds in the West Plains to hold the stormwater until it evaporates, because the water isn’t readily absorbed by the soils. The ponds are expensive because they consume buildable land, French said.
“If we could recharge the aquifer with recaptured water, it could help development on the West Plains,” French said. “This will make the West Plains more sustainable from a water standpoint because all the hundreds of millions of gallons of water lost to evaporation will be able to recharge the aquifer.”
Keeping people and goods moving is another crucial piece of West Plains development.
The $44 million Geiger Boulevard improvement project on the West Plains is breaking ground this spring to widen the road from two to three traffic lanes with a center turn lane. The upgrades are needed to accommodate heavy truck traffic at the Amazon site and future projects in the area.
Plans also call for construction of six roundabouts to replace signalized intersections at the Medical Lake and Grove Road freeway interchanges.
An additional roundabout will be constructed at Aero and Westbow roads, and a new parallel bridge will be built across Interstate 90 at the Medical Lake exit, providing additional travel lanes and a pedestrian/bike path.
The county will install water, sewer and fiber utilities as well as bus stops at major intersections along Geiger Boulevard to serve commercial developments.
Geiger Boulevard improvements will be phased in over two years, funded by a $14.3 million federal transportation grant awarded to the county last year, as well as more than $28 million from the state Department of Transportation, the city of Spokane, the Public Development Authority and the Spokane Transit Authority.
Airway Heights also is looking ahead to its transportation needs.
The city plans to build a road parallel to U.S. Highway 2 to accommodate east-west traffic resulting from new development. The city requested $3 million in funding from the state Legislature and has secured more than $500,000 for the project design.
For longtime West Plains residents, the pace of change might seem unsettling, said Broemmeling, the chamber manager. The new jobs will bring more people, more buildings and more traffic to the area. But most communities prefer the challenge of growth over a shrinking job base and declining population, he said.
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