Lewiston plans its economic development future

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Barge traffic at the Port of Lewiston. File photo.

Economic development in Lewiston faces infrastructure challenges but also new opportunities, according to Karl Dye, who was hired in June as the president and CEO of Valley Vision Inc.

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Karl Dye

Based in Lewiston, Valley Vision is the regional economic development agency covering Lewiston, Clarkston, Asotin County in Washington, and Nez Perce County in Idaho, Dye said. Other participants include two port districts in Washington, the Port of Lewiston – Idaho’s only seaport, and the Nez Perce tribe, he said. All the entities contribute financially, as do some private local companies, he said.

“The mission of our organization is to make sure we have a positive business environment, so companies already here stay here and grow, and we facilitate companies interested in moving here,” Dye said.

The biggest challenge Lewiston faces, not surprisingly, is lack of a skilled workforce, Dye said. He hopes to work with local school districts and other interested parties on training and apprenticeship programs. “That will create a talent pipeline to help fuel our economic growth,” he said.

Dye also needs to deal with the problem of retaining and increasing flights to and from the Lewiston Airport, as well as the changing role of the Port of Lewiston. In 2015, a labor dispute in Portland ended container shipping up the river to Lewiston.

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Anthony Jones

“The only real option was to send containers to Seattle, and the only way to do that was by train or truck,” said Anthony Jones, owner of Rocky Mountain Econometrics, who served as staff economist for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and as advisor to Idaho governors Batt and Kempthorne on Lower Snake River dam issues. A petroleum pipeline to Spokane didn’t help. “That ended, to all intents and purposes, petroleum shipping to Lewiston,” he said.

The remaining two items shipping out of the port are in decline, Jones said. “Wood fiber and pulp peaked at 450 million tons in the 1990s. They’re currently running at 250 million tons.” While wheat and barley remain a major shipper out of the port “that peaked at 4 million tons in 1999, and it’s currently at about two-thirds of that level,” he said.

In addition, between the costs of maintaining four dams on the Lower Snake, reduced prices for the surplus electricity they produce through the Bonneville Power Administration, and concerns about salmon survival, those dams might be breached, Jones said. “If the dams didn’t exist, the port wouldn’t exist,” he said. “It’s about that simple.”

Manufacturing – which might take a hit due to President Donald Trump’s tariffs – is also a major part of the Lewiston economy, Dye said. “There’s a lot of local aluminum production,” he said. “We have been working with the Idaho Department of Commerce to keep our ears open for local manufacturers who might be affected.” While tariffs increase the price of Chinese materials and make American materials more competitive, the increase in demand for American products might increase their prices as well, he said. The firearms industry is also a major contributor. “They’re a great part of the employment community and a big part of our economics,” he said.

Lewiston is also the gateway to recreational opportunities in central Idaho. “We have access to millions of acres of rivers and lakes,” Dye said. “We get over 100 tour boats from the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and they dock in Clarkston.” The region is also the home of Idaho’s latest viticultural district, the Lewis-Clark Valley Viticultural Area, created in 2016. It was split off from the Columbia Valley one, which covered the Walla Walla area, he said.

Lewiston – where the port has been investing in fiber-optic networks – might want to look at technology for expansion, Jones said. “High tech is the future, and commodities like timber and wheat are very stable and very safe,” he said. “You’re always going to need them, but if you’re looking for high growth, to need to look for something else.”