If you grew up or live in Centralia, Washington, this was all over your Facebook feed. Homesnacks.com (whatever that is) rated Centralia the “Worst Place to Live in Washington (state)”
As the former Chamber director, I offer a perspective no one else can. I’m not living there anymore, but I will always care about Centralia and Chehalis. I have no political ramifications to fear. Believe me. That is more important than you could possibly know. Remember when I talked about identifying and protecting your own in my Mike Huckabee/Duggars blog? Lewis County has more competitive groups and passively aggressive waring factions than it has people working together. Which brings me to my first point…
1. Work together. This is easier said than done. When I was there, I tried to build as much consensus as I could. It wasn’t easy. There were literally people I was told not to do business with. It was difficult. I worked around some, but not all of it. The truth is Lewis County, and Centralia, has a well-earned reputation for not cooperating. That needs to change.
2. Quit alienating Olympia. Let me tell you a story. I was at an event at Trans Alta. The governor and many other dignitaries were there. I had to leave early. I noticed Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, the most powerful man in Olympia, was going out to the parking lot. I took the opportunity to reintroduce myself. (I had covered the Capitol as a reporter for KIRO Radio.) It went poorly. I thought I was being pleasant and just making small talk, but he tore into me. I experienced the brunt of the legendary Frank Chopp temper. In my head I literally heard the sound of a plane taking a nose dive. “How the hell did this happen?” I thought as I bowed out of that disaster as gracefully as possible. To his credit, Chopp personally called me and apologized.
We have been on good terms ever since. I used the opportunity to bring him down to speak at a Chamber luncheon and meet with him privately on behalf of Lewis County. My point? When, as a county, you receive more tax dollars than you take in, perhaps a little diplomacy is better than being constantly combative. You don’t have to change your political opinions, just be more diplomatic in how you express them.
3. Find a niche. This is a hard one. Many people asked why Centralia doesn’t attract tech like Microsoft. One reason is most MS workers are contractors. A lot of work is done through temporary staffing agencies and you can only work so many months a year because otherwise you would be full-time. My personal opinion is that Centralia might start by trying to attract a call center. It’s not the highest paying job, but it’s a start. Manufacturers are also looking at places like Centralia: low cost of living, easy product distribution, and not a strong chance for unionizing. (It’s true, believe me). Again, while manufacturing isn’t what is was during Detroit’s heyday, it’s something. Right now there isn’t much. As more companies come back to the US for manufacturing, perhaps Centralia might be attractive for its relatively lower start up costs.
4.Some small businesses need to raise their game. Antiques are great. But that market is getting older. Tastes shift. There are no mid-century style stores downtown and that’s very popular. Some stores, honestly, look like swap meets and hurt the curb appeal of those who are putting in the extra effort. Why is McMenamins successful and your store barely makes rent? Your inventory sucks and your front window has no curb appeal. I was sad to see that Up The Creek Antiques left downtown. It looked terrific, but people treated it more like a museum than a store. I know it’s a hard balance.
5.Own Christmas. The Lighted Tractor Parade was a disaster that did a complete 180. I would find money for the biggest downtown light display you can afford. Think big. Cover the downtown business front in lights. Between the parade, the drive through display at Borst Park, and downtown looking amazing, you brand Centralia as a family holiday shopping destination. Shelton used to be Christmas town USA. Own that. Make it your identity. If you build it; they will come.
6. Support Centralia College. Education is more important than ever. Coming from an economically disadvantaged area means many who live there can only afford to attend Centralia College. It’s a great institution for its value. It offers a wide variety of courses and now offers some bachelors programs. Lewis County needs all of the trained people it can retain. An educated workforce is desirable to employers and can only help the community and economy in the future. I know some neighbors are frustrated living so close, and I’m very sorry for them, but sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. A more educated population is critical for Centralia and Lewis County’s success.
7. There is hope. Centralia has some cool, new things happening. To me the most important is the new Industrial Park At TransAlta, or IPAT. The hundreds of family wage jobs at “the steam plant” aren’t coming back, but the IPAT offers hope of new industry coming to Centralia. I can’t think of a better person to manage it than Allyn Roe, the former manager of the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. He’s smart and level headed. I’m also hopeful that Peter Abbarno will bring new life to the city council. He’s an attorney who does his homework. I would go to council meetings in the past and be frustrated that council members then often voted on things based on ideology, rather than reading bills, proposals and other things that crossed their desk. Often times reality and practicality trumps bumper sticker ideology. I hope that the new council does its due diligence. I also love the new Centralia Square. The hotel and ballroom are top notch. Neil and Jodi White and their partners did a tremendous job of revitalizing the old Elk’s Lodge. That building has so much to offer and it was rotting away as simply an antique store. I heard McMenamin’s refers people to that hotel when the hotel at the Oly Club is booked. Working together. Who knew?
These aren’t the only things that can be done. There are probably better ideas out there, either in theory or practice, right now.
Centralia isn’t dramatically different from what’s happening in small towns all across the country. For good or bad, times have changed. More and more people are migrating towards cities because of jobs and services. It’s up to small towns to meet the challenge of offering opportunity and selling quality of life. This is going to take commitment, self sacrifice, and focus on a common goal.