Pick an indicator of economic strength, and most likely Yakima County lags behind the rest of the state. This is no secret; Central Washington’s reliance on the agricultural economy has historically brought a high percentage of low-skilled, low-wage, seasonal jobs. The high poverty rates spill over into issues such as health care and educational attainment.
There is no getting around the area’s economic challenges; that acknowledged, statistics released over the past couple of months show signs of a local economy that is slowly but solidly getting stronger.
In May, a Yakima Herald-Republic story reported on a list by the website New Geography, which looks at places where people live and work. It found new hiring by established companies put Yakima County — which the federal Census Bureau defines as the Yakima Metropolitan Area — into the top quarter of metropolitan areas nationwide for job growth. Yakima ranked 102nd out of 421 metropolitan areas in 2016, a jump of 42 places from the year before.
June brought more stories that buttressed the job growth numbers. The state Department of Revenue reported that Yakima County businesses saw $3.8 billion in taxable retail sales in 2016, an increase of 4.9 percent over 2015.
Later in June, a Herald-Republic story told of a strong local housing market that is causing sticker shock among would-be home buyers. Anecdotally, homes that are put on the market get multiple offers above the asking price within hours. Statistically, the median price for existing homes in Yakima County sold during the first quarter of 2017 hit $192,700, 22 percent above the figure of just two years ago, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.
Then last week, the state Employment Security Department reported an unemployment rate of 5 percent in June, the lowest rate for the month since the agency began keeping comparable records in 1990. It wasn’t so long ago that a jobless rate in double digits was common outside of the growing and harvesting season. The 5.0 percent figure is within shouting distance of the state’s 4.5 percent jobless rate.
The county is not seeing the Puget Sound area’s population boom (thank goodness), but the trend here does head modestly in the right direction. In late June, the state Office of Financial Management estimated that 253,000 people called Yakima County home as of April 1, an increase of 2,100 people over the year before. The county’s growth rate was about 4 percent since the 2010 Census, about half of the overall rate in a state that is now home to more than 7.3 million people.
It doesn’t hurt that the tech-fueled Puget Sound economy is in overdrive, and that the national economy showed solid growth in the second quarter of this year. It appears Central Washington has a place in an overall strengthening economic picture.
This year looks to continue the upward local trend. In addition to growth from local companies, agriculture remains strong with its stalwart crops such as apples, and the cherry season may be a record breaker. Demand is increasing for Yakima Valley wines and hops, along with the region’s bounty of specialty crops. And some new players are taking the field; as one example, Sunnyside has just landed a mushroom-growing operation that promises to bring about 200 new jobs in two years.
Of course, challenges remain. You don’t have to look too far hereabouts to find many people who are not sharing in prosperity. The region is moving forward on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, but much work remains to be done to assure an adequate water supply for future agricultural needs. The ag community remains keenly interested in how the Trump administration will handle trade and immigration issues; federal decisions should have a tremendous impact on local economic prospects.
It’s the nature of an agricultural community to always worry about factors beyond its control — from weather to whimsy of government. The economic path forward is rarely a smooth or straight one, but here in the middle of 2017, the economic indicators are heading in the right direction.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.