The Bureau of Reclamation is having trouble attracting and retaining new skilled employees, Power Manager Mark Jenson told a number of local leaders Monday afternoon.
Jenson said that often a combination of local factors creates a problem for workers recruited or transferring to work here on the Grand Coulee Dam project.
Jenson stated that project employment, now 466 workers, will move to 582 by September of 2014. That’s a payroll jump from the present $32.6 million to $42 million in 2015. That expected boost of 116 employees is “not a temporary bump,” Jenson said, and most will tend to be younger workers.
Housing is a big issue, with new workers having trouble finding apartments or houses. He estimated that from 30-50 regular workers commute to the site from someplace else.
“That’s a lot of payroll dollars that are going elsewhere,” he told the 20 or so local leaders attending the meeting at the project office.
But he indicated a litany of issues other than housing also need attention.
He said that often a worker comes to the site and immediately recognizes how different it is from where he is presently located. Issues such as the outdated ranch-style housing, shopping, entertainment possibilities, schools, lack of daycare, lack of a recreation center and swim pool, limited entertainment and restaurants are all things brought up by potential employees.
Many take a look and decide to live elsewhere, Jenson stated. Regular Bureau workers live in Spokane, Moses Lake, Ephrata, Wilbur and other such places.
“How can we turn this around?” Jenson asked.
Co-Manager Scott Ross said the project has recruited with advertisments in outdoor magazines to “target people … who can survive here” and “don’t need a Walmart next door.”
He said the building of a new school is a “real big deal” as is the new hospital, which already enticed at least one worker to move here.
But housing was high on the list, and a previously planned condominium development at Osborne Bay, shelved during the Great Recession, was a center of attention.
Builder A. J. Gerard said that it wasn’t feasible for a builder to finance a spec housing or apartment complex because the return is too uncertain. Gerard stated that he has been in the area since 1936, and it has not sustained that type of building except during the Third Powerhouse construction. And developing Osborne Bay would require an expensive water line extension across the causeway from Electric City.
“There’s no contractor in the world that could afford to get the water to Osborne Bay,” Gerard said.
Jenson pointed out that the Bureau’s operating budget in 2008, was $97 million and will be $198 million in 2013.
He said many of the current projects at the dam, while major, don’t involve a lot of people at any one time. However, motel owners are quick to point out that these workers are staying locally during the week and some return home for the weekend. Their campsites and units are being occupied by these workers, filling out their off-season openings.
Debbie Bigelow, with Coulee Medical Center, said that there were about 10 workers at the hospital that have had trouble finding suitable housing.
“We have need for up to 20 condo-type housing units,” Bigelow stated. She said many of the employees she is talking about make from $85,000 to $200,000 a year and would love to have condos here where they could stay during their work week.
Lou Nevsimal, an employee at Coulee Playland, said he first wanted to move here in 1976, but was turned off by obvious lack of cooperation between the towns. He said there will be problems here as long as communities work against each other.
Jenson added, about schools, that the new school facility can be an opportunity for change in the reputation of the school system.
Chamber Manager Peggy Nevsimal, said there was a disconnect between the community and the Bureau and it wasn’t always clear how to find your way to resources at the Bureau. The suggestion that the chamber start some kind of “welcome wagon” locally for new residents was met with approval.
It was agreed that there is opportunity for growth, but not on how to get started.