Economic study: Region’s port create jobs

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune

Job creation, not water transportation, is the focus of a recently completed study examining the economic influence of north central Idaho and southeastern Washington ports.

Together, the Port of Whitman County, the Port of Lewiston and the Port of Clarkston have helped provide the infrastructure for businesses to employ more than 4,500 people, said University of Idaho economist Steven Peterson, the study’s author.

“Some of these firms probably would have left the region had it not been for port activity,” he said.

Peterson spoke Tuesday at the Lewiston Red Lion Hotel to a group of about 100 business leaders, elected officials, educators and economic development experts.

A high number of port jobs are in manufacturing, an area that grew by 39 percent in Nez Perce, Asotin, Latah and Whitman counties from 2001 to 2012. That happened at the same time the sector was in the midst of a 26 percent decline nationally.

“That’s the big story,” Peterson said. “We grew during the great retraction.”

Peterson didn’t look at how many jobs are connected to barging from the area to Portland, Ore.

“The river system is a clash of values, and it’s not going to be solved here,” he said.

Of the 4,773 jobs Peterson links directly to the ports, a little more than 2,000 are at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, the region’s largest private employer. SEL makes high-tech products for electrical utilities and large power users such as mines and paper factories. Only 22 are port employees, said Peterson, who was commissioned by the ports to do the study.

Employees at Seekins Precision and some jobs at Howell Machine in Lewiston are also in the 4,773. Seekins, an AR-15 rifle maker, and a portion of munitions manufacturer Howell Machine are located on business sites the Port of Lewiston created near the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport. Those port sites are now under different ownership.

Peterson said an additional 2,994 people are employed in the region because of the goods and services purchased by port-linked businesses.

The prosperity of port businesses translates into more money for the public sector too, Peterson said. Every dollar citizens pay in taxes generates $5.70 in taxes from port-affiliated businesses and their staff members.

The ports of Whitman, Lewiston and Clarkston have been so successful because they understand their role, Peterson said.

Entrepreneurs build businesses with new inventions and services, he said. Ports provide an industrial space by making buildings available for lease or purchase and by flattening ground and bringing in utilities like sewer lines.

Frequently, the payoff on those types of large investments is so long term that Peterson said the private sector isn’t interested.

“All three ports are moving in a direction I would recommend them to go and that’s (job creation),” he said. “Seek out and support local entrepreneurs and provide them the infrastructure they need to succeed.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.