The scene of a devastating downtown Raymond fire more than two decades ago will soon feature a brand-new building that will help with two major needs in the region — 30 affordable housing units and an early learning center.
The project, known as the Willapa Center, has been years in the making. This past legislative session, a little more than $2 million in state capital budget funds were approved for the center, enough to bridge the funding gap discovered when bids from earlier this year showed costs about $2 million more than anticipated.
“We thought we were fully funded, then COVID happened, and with that came lumber prices going up by 160%, so in January our bids came in high,” said Joint Pacific County Housing Authority Executive Director Jennifer Westerman. “So we went to the state Legislature and asked for more funding to fund the gap and were successful with that.”
The second round of construction bids is due May 27. With a lot of instability in materials pricing — “materials are still through the roof,” said Westerman — it’s hoped the total will come in within the engineer’s construction estimate of $9.25 million to $9.9 million, and Westerman is hoping to announce a groundbreaking ceremony at the location some time in June.
That location is 216 Third Street in Raymond. Longtime residents will remember this as the site of the Willapa Hotel fire in November 1998, which left about 80 people — many of them Asian immigrants — homeless, and destroyed seven businesses as it swept through the entire city block.
The new three-story mixed-use building will include affordable multifamily housing with 30 units ranging in size from one to three bedrooms, a licensed early learning facility on the first floor, and non-profit office tenant space.
“There’s 30 units total for families with children; 50% will be for homeless with children, and we will be providing services,” said Westerman.
Affordable housing in Pacific County, like it is in most rural counties, is difficult to come by at best. The addition of 30 units will make a difference in filling the need.
“Pacific County has a really difficult housing problem,” said Westerman. “The vacancy rate runs at zero percent almost all the time.”
She said part of the issue is pressure from those who want to move out of the Portland area for a quieter existence, and local property owners going the more lucrative route of offering their homes as short-term beach rentals through online services. “It’s probably also due to not a lot of development happening at the time, and the ground makes it really difficult to develop,” said Westerman, and its rural, remote location doesn’t get a lot of development attention.
A waiting list for the 30 units will open once construction nears completion. “There will be tons of public announcements of that,” said Westerman. Everyone on the current voucher waiting list will have an opportunity to get on the Willapa Center housing list, and it will be open to the general public as well, when the time comes.
The first-floor child care center will move the current Early Childhood Education and Assistance program out of the Raymond School District’s facilities.
“That will be moving from the facility in the school, which will allow that to be used for classrooms, and they need the classroom space,” said Westerman. She added the current location doesn’t meet all current program regulations, which forces the school district to file for waivers every year. The Willapa Center location will meet all requirements.
Opposite the child care facility will be property management offices, one for the site manager and one for the service provider. In the center of the first floor will be an office for the Joint Pacific County Housing Authority and more office space for other nonprofits.
“The idea is to try to strengthen nonprofits in the area” and connect residents with needed services, said Westerman. There will also be a meeting room for use by residents and other organizations.
The effort to provide housing grew out of the ashes of the Willapa Hotel fire, and the Willapa Center is the culmination of decades of work by local agencies and individuals to secure partners and state and grant funding for the project.
“Our goal was to find housing for the 30 families standing out in the middle of the street watching that fire, and we didn’t want to lose them, so we formed this unmet needs committee and helped them find housing,” said Rebecca Chaffee, Vice Chair of the Joint Pacific County Housing Authority and current Port of Willapa Harbor Commissioner. “We worked hard and found them all housing, and I think only one of the families ended up moving out of the area.”
From that effort, the Willapa Community Development Association was formed. Chaffee and Raymond resident Dave Gauger were both founding members. Through the years, and with a lot of partners, including the Joint Pacific County Housing Authority and Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington, the group has had a great deal of success creating affordable housing for the region, and were critical cogs in securing the funding for the Willapa Center.
“Dave Gauger and Rebecca, those two are fighters and really deserve a lot of the credit,” said Westerman. “We also had help from a ton of people; the county commissioners sent letters to the Legislature, and (Raymond) Mayor Tony Nordin and Mayor (Jerry) Philips in Long Beach contacted people on behalf of the project.”
Westerman added that Willapa Center developer Max Benson “has been working on the project since before I arrived at the agency,” and “he also deserves most of the credit for getting us to this point.” She also pointed to 19th District legislators as pivotal in securing funding.
Chaffee said the Willapa Center has “been a lot of years coming,” and vividly remembers getting called to the scene of the Willapa Hotel fire decades later.
“I remember getting the call in the middle of the night, and it was just like the kind of fire you see in the movies, flames coming out of the windows,” she said. “Fortunately, it was right next to the fire department and there was enough lead time to get everybody out.”
The aftermath saw the entire community coming together to help the mostly-immigrant families who lost everything in the fire. That spirit of community survives to this day.
“The spirit of the people in Pacific County amazes me all the time. They are fighters. They fight ceaselessly for people they don’t even know,” said Westerman. “Even though it’s really difficult to build here and we’re so remote, they continue fighting.”
The design of the building was done so that it would be modern but still fit in with the rest of downtown Raymond.
“One of the priorities was we wanted a traditional looking building that looked like it belonged in our downtown, and it feels like we got that in the design,” said Chaffee. “Not brick, but a traditional look with awnings and higher ceilings.”
For updates on the project and other housing services, visit the Joint Pacific County Housing Authority website at pacificcountyhousing.org.