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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Dr. Lisa Brown: State investments must strengthen communities

By Dr. Lisa Brown Washington Department of Commerce

What makes a strong community? Good jobs. Affordable housing. Reliable infrastructure. Innovation for a clean, healthy future. These are some of the key attributes that give Washington state its unique sense of place and quality of life.

Our mission at the Department of Commerce is to strengthen communities by working closely with many diverse partners – local governments, tribes, businesses, civic leaders, nonprofit service providers and others – to see that all people in the state have opportunities to thrive.

Very often this work happens behind the scenes, unknown to those who ultimately benefit from the public infrastructure improvements, new jobs, housing opportunities and incredible natural environment that Commerce funds through over 100 state programs.

Hope House. Volunteers of America. Avista. Katerra. AccraFab. Exotic Metals. Precision Cutting Tools. Pyrotek. Sunset Reservoir. All of these organizations and projects have a Commerce connection. The agency acts as convener and assistance hub, bringing together government resources at the federal, state and local levels with business and nonprofit partners to help communities achieve their goals.

For example, Commerce provided $1.4 million to Hope House and Volunteers of America to increase their capacity to shelter and serve the estimated 1,800 homeless women in Spokane. This is just one example of what the Housing Trust Fund accomplishes across the state. Thanks to the 2019 Legislature, an unprecedented $175 million will be invested over the next two years to provide permanent supportive housing for people with chronic mental illness, serve other low-income and special needs populations, preserve existing affordable housing units and help fund innovative new projects.

Through the Clean Energy Fund, Commerce is helping advance Avista’s outstanding work on the University District development. This and other electric grid modernization projects will help secure an energy-efficient, low-carbon future for all. Washington is leading by example, creating jobs and new business opportunities through clean energy development, while ensuring a healthy environment for our kids and future generations.

In addition to clean technology, our state’s key sector strategy supports public-private partnerships for growth in target industries. We provided strategic reserve funds through Greater Spokane Incorporated to recruit and help Katerra expand its rapidly growing cross-laminated timber products business. The same program supported location, retention and expansion projects involving Exotic Metals, Pyrotek, AccraFab, Precision Cutting Tools and others. Little did I know when, as a state senator, I sponsored the bill that created the economic development Strategic Reserve Fund, that I would one day lead the agency that puts these dollars from state lottery proceeds to work creating jobs.

Modern, reliable public infrastructure is the bedrock for every strong community to maintain not only good jobs, but Washington’s priceless quality of life. When the aging Sunset Reservoir needed crucial upgrades and maintenance to prevent deterioration, the Public Works Assistance program invested $1.4 million to ensure the state’s third-largest water system would continue to operate safely, efficiently and at affordable rates.

These examples reveal only a tiny sliver of how we strengthen communities through a holistic approach to development. Washington’s separate and diverse regional economies and environments demand equally diverse services and solutions. The ability to bring a comprehensive range of tools to the table is a necessity for the individual communities we serve.

Communities on both sides of the mountains have needs in common: infrastructure, mental health, education and workforce among them. But each community is unique, and no one-size-fits-all approach will ever succeed.

Take infrastructure, for example. An urban center in Puget Sound needs help to build out roads and transit to alleviate traffic congestion, or risk strangling shipping and cutting off job opportunities for people who can’t afford to live near work.

In rural communities, infrastructure is about a different kind of connectivity. They need help building out high-speed broadband networks to enable access to health care, education and business opportunities equal to their city neighbors.

Though they must share infrastructure funding sources, the problems are distinctly different. Clearly, we can’t depend on the federal government to come through with the investments needed in infrastructure and broadband, so the state must work hand-in-hand with community partners to understand and address their specific short-term and long-term priorities. Our focus at the Department of Commerce is opening doors and making connections that help every community reach its full potential, on its own terms. That is the essence of a strong community.

Dr. Lisa Brown is director of the Washington State Department of Commerce and a former state senator representing District 3.

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