Grays Harbor cities manage changing demographics

Growth. That was the word on the mind of Grays Harbor County’s civic leaders on Tuesday, March 22, at the annual “Lunch with the Mayors” event. Hosted by Greater Grays Harbor Inc., the lunch brought together eight cities and seven mayors to discuss development, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and various projects throughout the county.

Elma Mayor Jim Sorensen was not present, but he was represented by Elma Police Department Chief Sue Schultz. The city of Westport did not send a representative.

As each mayor shared updates on their city, stories of surprising financial fortune in the face of the pandemic and an influx of new residents rose to the forefront of conversation. From East County to the beach, nearly every city in Grays Harbor has been affected by pandemic relocation.

“We’re a town of about 700 people, but we’ve had over 80 people move here over the last year,” said Oakville Mayor Anthony Smith.

According to Smith, these new residents are primarily from the Seattle and Tacoma metropolitan areas, and took the pandemic as an opportunity to move out to the country.

Cities in East County with easy access to Olympia have seen continued growth through the pandemic, and are beginning to grapple with their newfound status as the “bedroom communities” of Olympia — a reputation McCleary Mayor Chris Miller hopes to get away from.

McClearly is on track for two additional housing developments over the next two years, which would add another 362 housing units to the area, according to Miller. In Elma, relocation from Olympia compounded with the presence of the Summit Pacific Medical Center has spurred local development.

“Elma now has a hospital, and that hospital is continuing to increase in size, which in turn brings an entire new population to Elma,” said Schultz.

And where the new population goes, amenities are popping up. The Eagles Landing business development, located just across the street from Summit Pacific, includes popular national chains Burger King and Starbucks. Schultz announced on Tuesday that Arby’s will officially have a new location in the development in the near future.

But growth comes with drawbacks as well. New residents accustomed to the amenities of city life have different expectations than their more local counterparts. Balancing these expectations amid changing demographics has been a difficult task for the area’s mayors.

“They moved for the rural life, but they don’t want the rural life. They want all of the good things from where they came and none of the bad,” said Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin on Tuesday.

According to Martin, his city has particularly struggled to provide sufficient health care options for its expanding population. A lack of available urgent care and speciality services are among the chief concerns of Ocean Shores residents when it comes to medical access, and are essential to preventing dangerous diversions that take firefighters and emergency responders out of town during 911 calls.

Zoning has also proven to be an issue, as some longtime residents struggle with the changing aesthetics of the city as new homes are built on previously empty lots.

“Our goal as a city is to get up there and explain how things are. We want to find solutions, but everything costs money,” said Martin.

In East County, cities are finding common ground by breaking ground. According to Smith, the city of McClearly is working to improve its public parks system for seasoned residents and newcomers alike to enjoy. While the coming year will primarily be devoted to planning through aquifer and land use studies, the city is hoping to acquire more land to expand its park system.

The city of Elma is now able to focus on its public land resources, as well due to an influx of funds to the budget following the pandemic.

“The softball fields are going to be redesigned to adhere for better parking and observation purposes. We’re also residing the batting cages and putting up netting at the Little League field,” said Schultz.

Additional funds have also allowed the Elma Police Department to relocate to the former Whiteside Family Mortuary building pending renovations. The department has been operating for over 35 years out of a 1,500 square foot building that was intended to be a temporary location.

In other cities, mayors are hoping to bring new residents into the fold by getting them involved in the community.

“It’s a bit of an uphill struggle to explain the complicated dynamics of sidewalks, water run offs, and things like that,” said Oakville Mayor Anthony Smith. “Once they start going to these events, they become very community-minded, very involved. It’s an interesting thing to have to go talk to people and bring them in, but if you move to a small town, involvement is part of the game.”

Hoquiam Mayor Ben Winkelman hopes to utilize the niche knowledge pockets of the city’s new residents to spur action and help the city meet its future.

“Try to keep that in mind when I put together things like our planning commission, or our urban forestry committee. These people may have a real wealth of knowledge, but not know that these opportunities are available to them or how to get involved,” he said.

He also shared on Tuesday that the city of Hoquiam has acquired 40 acres of old timber property on the edge of town with the hopes of turning it into a space for recreational use.

“I’d like to focus a bit about what our community is turning into, because it’s obvious that it’s changing and we need to change with it. It’s noticeable on every street and every corner,” he said.

Hoquiam and Aberdeen in particular are well-poised for another round of growth after President Joe Biden recently signed into law a federal spending bill that includes nearly $10 million in funding for the Aberdeen-Hoquiam Flood Protection Project.

The project, which includes the construction of the North Shore Levee and the North Shore Levee – West Segment, will bring over 3,000 properties out of the flood zone and will free up the more than $2 million in flood insurance Aberdeen and Hoquiam residents pay annually.

The project is expected to attract outside investors to the downtown areas of both cities as the external costs of development are reduced.

“We’ll start seeing some of that develop before long. There are companies that have made contact that are interested in moving here, so as soon as we get the levee project done I think we’ll see some daylight in the projects around here,” said Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave.

Lunch with the Mayors was the first in-person event hosted by Great Grays Harbor Inc. since the pandemic began, and the first in-person event for CEO Lynnette Buffington since she joined in July 2020.