Study identifies and quantifies strengths, challenges

By Ann McCreary

People who live and work in the Methow Valley know the issues they face in their daily lives here — things like the shortage of affordable housing, the need for more child care options, and the seasonal swings in the valley’s economy and employment.

A recently completed study puts statistics behind the reality of living here, in order to guide plans to strengthen the economy of the Methow Valley and improve the lives of valley residents.

Photo courtesy of TwispWorks

Hannah McIntosh brings project management experience to her new role.

“If you’ve been here a while, you know intuitively this is how our economy functions. But it’s nice to have it validated by data,” said Hannah McIntosh, economic development coordinator at TwispWorks.

McIntosh was hired last summer for the economic development job. The position was created through the efforts of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery Group, which was formed after the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014.

“It was recognized that economic resilience is the key to disaster preparedness,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh put together her report, called “Our Economy: Getting By and Getting Paid in the Methow,” over the past several months, using primarily federal census and employment security data. The report provides  “a snapshot of the pertinent and most recent data available on our local economy,” she said.

She has presented her findings to both the Winthrop and Twisp town councils, as well as the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.

The study revealed, or in some cases confirmed, some interesting trends in the way Methow Valley residents live and work, she said.

Working from home

One of the more intriguing statistics to come out of the study is the number of valley residents who work at home, McIntosh said.

The national average for people who work out of their homes is 2.8 percent, and in Seattle, a city with one of the nation’s largest percentages of people who work at home, the proportion of at-home workers is about 5 to 6 percent.

In the Methow Valley, however, about 13 percent of people in the work force do their jobs at home, the study found.

“That’s not really shocking when you think about it. We all know people who do,” McIntosh said. The figures indicate that the Methow Valley is ahead of a national trend.

“Nationally, the number of people working from home has doubled in the past 10 years, which is good news for us,” she said. “It’s a way of working that is growing exponentially. A lot of investment is going into helping people work at home.”

That trend also indicates what will be needed for future economic development in the Methow Valley, McIntosh said during a presentation to the Twisp Town Council.

“It highlights the need for reliable fiber, Internet service and communications,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “We’re reliant on these whether we work at home or not. The lack of reliability … could impact us incredibly.”

Nationally and locally, the trend toward more home-based employment has led to investment in “co-working spaces,” McIntosh said.

At TwispWorks a new business called Methow Base offers shared office space, with a focus on digital media creation. The space provides desks for drop-in or regular users, office amenities including printing and high bandwidth Internet, and storage space for personal office items. 

“One of the things I hear from people who work at home is it can be really isolating,” said McIntosh. Co-working spaces like Methow Base can offer opportunities to socialize and collaborate, she said.

Statistical snapshot

The study, which defined the valley as extending from the Canadian border to Highway 97, found that of 4,792 full-time residents, 2,671 are in the labor force — or about 56 percent of the population. That compares to a national average of about 63 percent of the population in the labor force.

“Our low rate reflects the number of retirees who have located here,” McIntosh said.

That statistic has practical implications for local business owners, who often find it difficult to recruit and retain workers, she said.

The study also found:

  • Among families in the Methow Valley, 63 percent have both parents in the labor force, which is about average for the nation. But many parents cite the shortage of child care providers as a barrier to employment, McIntosh said.
  • Median household income among residents varies from $31,000 in Twisp to $52,000 in Mazama and Winthrop. All are lower than the state median income, which is almost $65,000, the study found.
  • Almost one-third — 30 percent — of children in the Methow Valley live in households earning less than the federal poverty level, or $24,300 for a family of four.
  • The median home value in the Methow Valley is $272,00. The median home value in Washington state is $316,000, according to the real estate website Zillow.
  • Top industries in the Methow Valley include accommodations and food services, public administration, retail, construction, agriculture and health care.
  • About 25 percent of the work force is employed in accommodations and food services, but those low-paying jobs generate less than 20 percent of the wages earned by valley workers.
  • Unemployment is low — about 4.3 percent based on 2014 data.
  • Private wage and salary workers make up 68 percent of the work force, including people working for their own incorporated business. About 17 percent work for government at all levels and 15 percent work for their own unincorporated business. McIntosh said the number of government employees is lower than she expected, and she plans to re-examine data to confirm the accuracy of that statistic.

One of the most unique aspects of working and living in the Methow Valley “is the seasonal nature of our economy,” McIntosh said. “There are huge swings in the number of jobs.”

The study found that from the peak employment in August, jobs decrease by 20 to 30 percent at the low point in March. That represents 400 to 500 jobs, McIntosh said.

The biggest changes in job numbers occur in agriculture, construction, and accommodation and food services. Retail trade, arts, entertainment and recreation “are surprisingly steady,” she said.

Hitting the streets

“Data is never going to tell the whole picture, especially in an economy this small,” McIntosh said. “But it helps us target where to focus” on promoting the local economy.

For instance, unemployment is low in the valley, “so we don’t need to spend a lot of effort on helping people find jobs,” McIntosh said.

“But we might want to put effort into business-support services, like training in QuickBooks, marketing, inventory management,” she said.

Helping businesses prosper could include classes or one-on-one coaching for business owners, McIntosh said. “There are a lot of resources out there to do that.”

Business owners are often so busy managing day-to-day affairs that they don’t have time to explore ways to become more effective or efficient, she said.

TwispWorks, with its mission of increasing economic vitality in the Methow Valley, can play a “personal matchmaker role” to help businesses and entrepreneurs find the support they need, McIntosh said.

She and TwispWorks Executive Director Don Linnertz plan to make personal contacts with local businesses starting in 2017 to identify what kinds of services or assistance will help them be as successful as possible.

“Don Linnertz and I are hitting the streets in early January. Business owners can expect a knock on the door to have exactly that conversation,” McIntosh said.

“I’ve been doing some of that over the summer” while developing the study, she said. “People have sat down with me and talked through what the challenges are to run a business here. One of the challenges that people bring up a lot is the concern that employees have a hard time finding affordable housing.”

She said several business owners have expressed interest in expanding social media marketing and sales capabilities. TwispWorks will partner with other organizations, such as the Small Business Development Center in Omak, to bring education and support for local businesses, she said.

Economic vitality can be improved through initiatives that help businesses and industries find financing and investors, McIntosh said.

And, she said, the local economy may benefit from increased support for industries, including “re-energizing the conversation around forest and wood products … using wood coming out of the forests” as a result of forest health and wildfire prevention programs.