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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amazon poised to become a top regional employer a year after opening West Plains fulfillment center

When Amazon announced it was building a fulfillment center on the West Plains nearly three years ago, it brought promise of bringing more than 2,000 jobs to the region.

The 640,000-square-foot fulfillment center, which opened a year ago at 10010 W. Geiger Blvd., employs more than 3,000 and has the capacity to accommodate hundreds more workers, according to the company.

Since then, Amazon’s regional footprint has grown rapidly, with its announced plans for an air cargo facility at Spokane International Airport, a delivery station on the West Plains and a second fulfillment center in Spokane Valley.

The e-commerce giant could become of one of the top employers in the region, but local economists say it may be too soon to gauge the full extent of the company’s economic impact on the area.

“There is always what we call multiplier effects from something like this,” said Grant Forsyth, Avista Corp’s chief economist, referring to Amazon’s fulfillment center. “If you increase employment opportunities in the region, it’s basically increasing peoples’ ability to spend … what (the multiplier effects) look like – it’s too early to tell.”

Forysth said some of the multiplier effects are masked in part because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“But I have no doubt we’ll have multiplier effects of Amazon being here,” he said. “It’s just a question of how long it takes to materialize.”

Putting Spokane on map

S3R3 Solutions – formerly the West Plains Public Development Authority – was established in 2017 to recruit businesses and drive economic growth through job creation. The agency, which played a significant role in recruiting Amazon to the area, consists of officials from the city of Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane International Airport.

Al French, S3R3 Solutions board chair and Spokane County commissioner, said infrastructure improvements as well as Amazon’s arrival have helped in recruiting other businesses to the area.

“I think it’s got us on the map for other businesses to look and say, ’There’s something happening in Spokane and we need to be part of that.’ I think that it’s becoming a very real conversation out there,” French said. “We are developing a trademark, if you will, of success in terms of being attractive to companies that are not only operating on a national level but now on an international level. That’s a big win, and that’s saying a lot about the community.”

Kent, Washington-based aerospace manufacturer Exotic Metals Forming Co. completed an expansion project on its Airway Heights campus last year. Selkirk Pharma Inc. is building a large manufacturing plant at 9110 W. Granite Ave. in the Pacific Northwest Technology Park.

Spokane developer Harlan Douglass is building the Douglass Commerce Park near Amazon’s fulfillment center. When complete, it will consist of dozens of commercial warehouse, manufacturing, distribution and office buildings.

Spokane County, the city of Spokane and airport officials are building a $14.3 million transload facility – where shipments are transferred from trucks to rail and vice versa – that would create jobs, minimize traffic congestion and ease access for businesses to transport goods, according to the airport.

The first phase of the project, which called for construction of a 1-mile rail line connecting the existing Geiger spur line to the airport property, was completed in 2019.

The project’s second phase will extend 3 miles of rail south from the existing Geiger spur to a freight-loading and circulation station between Craig Road and the airport. It will open up more than 1,000 acres of land within opportunity, foreign trade and community empowerment zones for development.

In March, Amazon announced plans to lease an air cargo facility at Spokane International Airport. The air cargo facility will be used to transfer parcels from trucks to Amazon Air – or vice versa – for transport between the company’s West Plains fulfillment center and other fulfillment centers across the country.

S3R3 Solutions is partnering with the airport to develop the 30,750-square-foot facility and sublease it to Amazon Air, which plays a critical role in transporting items across longer distances in shorter time frames.

When the Amazon fulfillment center was announced in 2018, the Spokane International Airport anticipated many benefits to the broader area economy, including an increase in aviation-related commerce, Larry Krauter, chief executive officer of Spokane International Airport, Felts Field and Airport Business Park, said in an email.

Airport officials anticipated that Amazon would likely initiate air cargo support after opening the West Plains fulfillment center and it was ready with a site and development concept, which is part of a larger vision for the eastern section of the airport, Krauter said.

The airport previously built aircraft parking ramp infrastructure and cleared obsolete buildings from the area adjacent to the ramp. That long-range planning allowed the airport to move quickly to facilitate a deal with Amazon for the air cargo facility, Krauter said.

“Amazon’s presence in close proximity to the airport – and soon on the airport – most assuredly is helping to accelerate achievement of our vision of developing the airport area and West Plains into a world-class multimodal transportation and logistics center with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing and aerospace,” Krauter said. “Amazon’s investment adds to a continuum of job growth that will increase median household income in our community, which will drive increased demand for business, leisure and cargo air service.”

Impact on labor market

Amazon employs more than 4,000 workers in the Spokane area. After the company opens its 1.3-million-square-foot Spokane Valley fulfillment center this fall, it will add 1,000 more jobs, making the company the fourth-largest employer in Spokane County.

The company’s “last-mile” delivery station – also slated to open in the fall, at 11901 W. McFarlane Road – will bring hundreds of jobs that have an average starting wage of $17 per hour and a variety of benefits, according to the company.

A job at Amazon can be a springboard to a career within the company or other opportunities, the company says. In 2020, Amazon promoted more than 35,000 employees in its operations network and continues to invest in the long-term career success of employees inside and outside of the company, Amazon spokeswoman Karen Riley-Sawyer said in an email.

Hourly employees also have access to Amazon’s innovative Career Choice program, which prepays 95% of tuition for courses in such high-demand fields as game design, nursing and IT programming, she said.

Amazon’s expansion in the region likely will increase demand for labor not only in Spokane, but from Lincoln, Stevens and Kootenai counties, Forsyth said.

“What they are doing is ultimately deepening the labor market here,” Forsyth said. “That means the region looks more attractive for people to move here. The region’s population growth is not connected to babies being born, it’s people moving here. One of the things that attracts people to the region – especially younger people – is what is the depth of your labor market?”

Amazon’s presence in the region probably has increased competition in the labor market, but also gives workers more options in where they choose to work, Forsyth said. New businesses or those working with Amazon may also add jobs, increasing employment outside of the Seattle-based company, Forsyth added.

Top of the radar

Amazon’s West Plains fulfillment center is processing and shipping more than 5 million items a week. It stores nearly 38 million small- to medium-size items in inventory that are shipped nationwide.

With the addition of its delivery center and Spokane Valley fulfillment center, Amazon will be able to implement same-day shipping to customers in the region.

Amazon may not be finished with expanding in Spokane.

Spokane-based AHBL Inc. filed an application with the county for a grading permit to make way for “Project Gray,” a 315,000-square-foot warehouse with 80 loading docks, 500 vehicle parking spaces and 360 truck parking spaces. The warehouse will be at 6125 S. Hayford Road, directly west of Amazon’s West Plains fulfillment center.

A traffic study for the project specified the warehouse would operate as “a cross-dock truck terminal and sorting of packages would occur on-site.”

An environmental review for the project indicated about 700 employees would work at the facility.

While Amazon’s name is not attached to the grading permit, the company is known to use code names in the design phases of its projects. Amazon’s West Plains fulfillment center was named “Project Rose” it its initial building permit application. The Spokane Valley facility was referred to as “Project Fireball” before the company confirmed in February it was behind the project.

Construction on the warehouse is slated to begin later this year, with completion anticipated in 2022, according to the environmental review.

At Amazon’s sorting centers, employees sort orders by final destination and consolidate them onto trucks for faster delivery.

Amazon declined to comment on whether it’s considering a sorting center on the West Plains.

“We are constantly exploring new locations and weighing a variety of factors when deciding where to develop sites to best serve customers; however, we don’t provide information on our future roadmap,” Riley-Sawyer said in an email.

French anticipates job growth to continue because of Amazon.

“(Spokane) is top of the radar for them, so I would not be surprised to see Amazon as one of our major employers here in the very near future,” he said.