The Thurston County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual State of the Community January Forum today with some 200 local business leaders in attendance at the Olympia Hotel at Capitol Lake.
Four local mayors and one county commissioner were the featured presenters.
Two incoming mayors, Joe DePinto of Yelm and Debbie Sullivan of Tumwater were introduced for the first time as mayors in this forum. Sullivan received a standing ovation after mentioning that she is the first female mayor in Tumwater history.
Others who spoke included Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder, Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby and County Commissioner Tye Menser. Ryder spoke remotely “as a precaution after being alerted to being potentially exposed” to a COVID-19 infected person.
Housing, economic development and COVID-19 were the leading topics of the forum for each guest speaker to address.
Menser mentioned that he was the 2020 county chair for the health board, which became an eye-opener for him.
“I thought I would chair a few meetings, learn about our county’s health. Then COVID-19 hit a few months later,” Menser said. “I became consumed with important issues that presented multiple challenges.”
Loss of agricultural land
Menser told the crowd that Thurston County has different concerns than the cities, especially when it comes to agricultural land.
“We’re losing agricultural land here at a very alarming rate,” Menser said. “It’s one main economic driver for our county that’s being lost and we have density limits, despite adding ADU housing.”
Selby said that the state of Washington was over 250,000 units short of demand, which has created a lot of housing issues as well.
“The pandemic was just one more thing added to the housing crisis,” Selby said. “COVID-19 hit our sheltering issues, creating capacity concerns and there are no easy answers.”
Selby mentioned that a portion of economic development that the City of Olympia was fostering was an investment in the arts and “creating a pipeline for our more vulnerable citizens, our younger, street-dependent folks who just need a hand on the rung of a ladder, to get back into the workforce.” She further talked about working with South Puget Sound Community College and the Carpenters Union about “a pathway into the trades for these workers.”
She said that such programs will also help with the housing crisis, as we create newly trained builders, along with expanding incentives for the private sector to build.
Ryder said that he felt it was extremely important for every jurisdiction to be on the same page, having a regional approach to the housing crisis moving forward.
“What we don’t want is Olympia doing something that Lacey is doing,” Ryder said. “It is nice to see all of the jurisdictions working together. Homelessness is not pushing the problem from one city to the other.”
Sullivan said that the City of Tumwater had created more zoning for affordable housing, and while the municipality did not have the larger homeless camp issues, they used other factors to determine if someone was unhoused. “We ID our homeless issues through the school district,” Sullivan said.
Yelm mayor Joe DePinto, who wore shoes with sparkles, said that new housing developments would come once red tape was eliminated.
“I was part of the Homeless Task Force for our city a few years ago. We met with low income and homeless advocates, everyone was pretty passionate about it and we gained a lot of public input,” DePinto said. “We now open our community center once a month to get service sign-ups for those needing mental, drug or housing support.”
DePinto lamented that the mayors of Tenino, Rainier and Rochester weren’t a part of the State of Community forum for the Thurston Chamber.
“I realize that the big dogs have a need to eat, but South County matters,” DePinto said. “Yelm alone isn’t in the category of red necks and farmers anymore.”
As a standard, the forum did not take questions from the audience of community business leaders.
The proceedings were videotaped by staff from Thurston County Media and is available for streaming here.
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