Rolling forward with the Thurston Community Economic Alliance (TCEA)


Michael Cade, EDC Executive Director

The Blue Ribbon Economic Development Panel of Sustainable Thurston set forth numerous goals for a sustainable economy. The Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC) and community partners are working to realize the sustainability plan’s Goal EC-1: Coordinate economic development efforts to attract and retain businesses and jobs.  

EDC Executive Director Michael Cade noted that “the new Thurston Community Economic Alliance (TCEA) doesn’t just address this goal, but provides a structure and partnerships required to accomplish many of the other sustainability goals.”

For the past several months, a diversity of community members — business and non-profit leaders, educators, elected officials, and other stakeholders — joined together to scope specific ways that the Thurston County region can build a more sustainable economy. Through individual interviews, large- and small-group strategy sessions and other engagement efforts, more than 100 community leaders have participated in the creation of a unifying framework.  

The group didn’t start from scratch. Rather, it built on the findings of Sustainable Thurston, the Target Industry Cluster Analysis, Pac Mountain Workforce Development Strategic Plan, and Thurston Thrives, among other recent 

studies and initiatives. They looked at and learned from changes happening in the state workforce and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an increased city emphasis on economic development, and the successful launch of the Center for Business and Innovation.  

Earlier this year, two summits focused on developing TCEA goals and strategies and then identifying specific initiatives, partners and implementation timelines. Summit three, which occurred in fall 2016, revealed a draft implementation plan and moved TCEA closer to full community buy-in and adoption.  

Rather than looking at local economic development as a perpetual competition, the public, private and non-profit partners involved in TCEA are focused on what we can achieve collectively, by working together and leveraging our resources. The goal is to build broader access to economic opportunity and increase community prosperity and economic resiliency for the long-term.

The TCEA’s vision recognizes that if we work together, we’ll improve our chances of competing and prospering in a changing and competitive global marketplace. Bringing each individual’s and organization’s skills and focus areas into alignment also helps to ensure that doors will open for all of our residents and businesses. With growing funding challenges, the TCEA can create the broad coalition necessary to make the infrastructure investments crucial to our success.  

The EDC will roll out more details after Summit Three in the areas of: 
  • Education and Workforce Readiness
  • “Clean and Green” Industry Growth and Development
  • Support for Small Business and Entrepreneurs
  • Coordination of Infrastructure, Funding, and Policy
  • Developing a “Thurston” Brand, Partnerships and Communication
Cade noted that a county-wide strategic plan has been discussed for a long time, but, until now, never actually accomplished. He credits the recent success to a combination of timing, need and growing trust: “This work came together because of the great leaders here in the Thurston Region and their commitment to engage, listen and act. To ensure we remain focused and successful, we’ve established a strong TCEA structure, concise implementation actions and an inventory of performance measures so we can see how we’re doing and adjust course as necessary to keep our communities vibrant. Together, we can take on the world — just what is needed in today’s economy.”    

Business cooperation yields a bumper crop in 
South County

Photo: Tenino Farmer’s Market
Ah, South Thurston County. That local bastion of country living, bucolic farms and small-town charm. Pastoral, laid-back and friendly — yes. But what about motivated, engaged, exciting, cooperative? You bet. 

Since the inception of the South Thurston Economic Initiative (STEDI), the Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC) has led the group and partnered with various agencies to support economic development in our rural communities. STEDI’s initial aim was “Main Street” businesses in the South County downtowns of Rochester, Bucoda, Tenino, Rainier and Yelm. In recent months, however, efforts have expanded to all rural businesses — including agriculture.  

“I would love for all businesses to thrive,” said Bo Foster, owner of Signature Service Real Estate and a member of STEDI.  “When one business in town is doing well, it brings clients. When any business does well, we all do well. It’s a synergistic relationship: 1 + 1 = 3.”

A direct result of this growth, STEDI members have identified priorities for spurring economic development in the South County communities. The Bountiful Byway is encouraging growth in agritourism. The EDC is partnering with the agricultural industry in the hopes of creating an agricultural business center. Farmers’ markets thrive in Yelm and Tenino during the summer, with more opportunities developing in Rainier and Rochester. Chambers of Commerce in Yelm, Tenino, and Rochester are working hard to support their local businesses and communities through development of buy-local campaigns. 

In response to conversations held during STEDI meetings, the EDC and Visitor & Convention Bureau partnered to present business readiness trainings this summer. Geared specifically to businesses on the Bountiful Byway, ‘Team Bountiful’ highlighted the need to cross-promote businesses and farms on the Byway.  

By promoting one another, businesses and farms are able to strengthen their relationship with both customers and each other. Such businesses learned how to build upon each other’s strengths rather than viewing each other as competition. 

STEDI’s strategic partners have discussed ways to help agricultural producers grow their businesses and add value to their products. The Thurston County region is missing some key facilities to make that happen, however.  

A food hub could help various producers aggregate and distribute their products to local businesses, school districts, and other institutions. A co-packing facility would help agricultural businesses package their products for sale. Cold storage could keep products fresh before they are brought to market. A commercial kitchen would allow entrepreneurs prepare food to sell.  

Having identified what’s missing, the EDC is now seeking funding to develop an agricultural industrial park and agricultural business center in the South County. Conversations at STEDI meetings have also identified the need for farmers’ market vendor trainings.  

The EDC and the Visitor & Convention Bureau hope to build on the success they had with ‘Team Bountiful’ and do the same for the vendors that make the markets a weekend tradition. Rainier is hoping to establish its own farmers’ market next year, and vendor training will go a long way to helping a new market hit the ground running.

As a group, STEDI members have identified the need to develop a buy-local campaign in partnership with the local chambers of commerce. What’s incredibly exciting about this is that they’re talking in terms of not just a single community such as Rochester; they’re talking in terms of South County as a whole.  

The STEDI group has identified ways to strengthen this idea of cooperation. For example, field trips will allow business owners the opportunity to find out what’s available in other South County communities. If something isn’t available in Rainier, perhaps it’s available down the road in Tenino.  

The most exciting thing to come out of STEDI this past year has been a sense of camaraderie and cooperation, some say.  

“That’s the reason I joined STEDI,” added Signature Service Real Estate’s Foster.  “I want to do everything I can to help our community grow.” 

Momentum is building in our rural communities. Don’t worry, folks — South County will continue to be pastoral and laid-back. With a focus on cooperating and strengthening one another, it will become even more friendly. And that’s good for business.