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State budget cuts would kill helpful program

County-level funding has helped local economic development

 


A fund that has boosted Grant County’s development by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade is on hold, possibly permanently.

The county’s “Strategic Infrastructure Program” has made it possible for large and small projects around the county to attract other grant and loan funding, resulting in economic gains from Grand Coulee to Royal City.

The program added $250,000 of leverage to the funding package that built Coulee Medical Center. It helped pay for improvements that attracted Microsoft and Yahoo! to Quincy, and it was instrumental in ushering in the “age of carbon” as a BMW partner invested $100 million in Moses Lake to build a new carbon fiber plant for electric car bodies.

But last month, Grant County commissioners put a hold on the program, fearing that the Legislature will follow Gov. Chris Gregoire’s recommendation to keep in state coffers the locally collected sales taxes that fund it.

Since 2000, the SIP (I’ve been on the county advisory board since then) has funded 114 projects with more than $6 million in grants and no-interest loans that often provided required match to get grants and loans from other programs. Some, like the development around Quincy, are large projects. Others are small.

The most recent project, approved last month, helped the Dessert Aire Airport District with an $8,000 loan to put in helipad lights for a new EMS landing pad.

“We’ve seen some very good things happen that have led to job creation or just economic improvement within the community to improve the infrastructure,” said Terry Brewer, executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Council.

Brewer, also a public utility district commissioner, has been at the nexus of major developments in the county for more than a decade.

The most recent county win that brought in a big fish with the help of SIP funds landed the first manufacturing facility in the world dedicated to producing large volumes of super-strong, super-light, carbon fiber for electric cars. A $165,000 grant in support of preparing the way for construction of SGL Group’s $100 million plant landed 50 high-wage jobs and the probability of expansion of the new industry.

“Those kinds of projects really stand out,” Brewer said, “but at the same time I’ve always felt proud of some of the parks projects, such as in Coulee City and Grand Coulee” that encourage development to help support tourism.

What Grant County calls its SIP fund has its counterparts in 32 rural counties around the state, funded by sales taxes collected within those counties but rebated back by the state. A total of .09 percent is currently given back, authorized in three successive laws that first marked just .04 percent, doubled that in 2000, then added the final .01 percent a couple of years ago.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed eliminating the program to save $24 million as the Legislature looks for $2 billion in savings, or at least cutting it back to the .04-percent level to save $10.7 million.

Either level would stop the SIP in Grant County, noted County Commissioner Richard Stevens. The county committed the earlier funds to paying off debts for projects at the Port of Moses Lake and Big Bend Community College. But they set up the advisory board to spread the rest of the funding out around the county.

“It’s worked for what it was for,” Stevens said of the SIP program. “It’s been pretty important to the communities around the county.”

He noted the $250,000 the fund provided for Coulee Medical Center infrastructure work, $150,000 of that a grant, the rest a loan. Smaller doses of funds have helped fund sewer lines and parks development locally, and put in improvements at the golf course.

Stevens said the county itself has used that last .01 percent funding to help service some $12 million in debt for county fairgrounds upgrades at times when its Real Estate Excise Tax revenue is low.

“If SIP goes away and there’s no REET, then that’s going to have a profound effect on the county,” he said.

 

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