A broad coalition continues efforts to fund improvements
By Marcy Stamper
The North Cascades Smokejumper Base has been named the No. 1 project of significance in North Central Washington for its benefits to the regional economy and community.
That top ranking from the North Central Washington Economic Development District (NCWEDD) was cited by a broad coalition of elected officials, specialists in economic development, and former smokejumpers when they met last Friday (March 16) to continue their strategic planning to ensure the base continues its 79-year-long history in the Methow Valley.
NCWEDD ranks projects based on the quality of their development plan and strategy, broad local and regional support, and a demonstration that progress is conceivable within the year, according to Karen Francis-McWhite, NCWEDD’S executive director.
The coalition that met last week includes Okanogan County Commissioners Andy Hover and Jim DeTro; the mayors of Twisp, Winthrop and Pateros; aides to state Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-4th District) and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington); and an array of specialists in economic development from TwispWorks, the Twisp Chamber of Commerce, and Francis-McWhite. They discussed plans for an April meeting with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the base.
The coalition came together after a Preliminary Project Analysis (PPA) completed by the Forest Service last August gave the base two to three years to make improvements or face the prospect of relocation. The analysis compared keeping the base in the Methow Valley or moving it to Wenatchee or Yakima. Yakima was ultimately eliminated as an alternative.
The PPA determined that keeping the base in the Methow has a slight advantage over Wenatchee, primarily because of the impact on jobs.
The main concerns at the base are three buildings — an office, a parachute loft and a saw-maintenance shack — that are within a 250-foot exclusion zone from the runway. The buildings are allowed under a waiver but jeopardize future federal funding for the airport because they are in violation of Federal Aviation Administration standards, according to the PPA.
NCWEDD announced the top five projects at the end of January. “It’s a rigorous process that evaluates economic significance to the region as a whole,” said Francis-McWhite, who said the organization received 17 preliminary applications last fall and invited all but one to submit a full application.
The rankings make these projects more competitive for federal, state and private grants, said Francis-McWhite. One of her roles is to assist with grant writing.
Approximately 45 jobs are affiliated with the base, making it the fourth- or fifth-largest employer in the valley. Loss of those jobs would have a significant and adverse impact on the Methow Valley economy, according to the PPA. A key factor in NCWEDD’s rankings is the number of jobs that would be created or preserved if a project is successful, said Francis-McWhite.
Francis-McWhite will build on the Forest Service PPA by calculating the additional impact of keeping the base in the Methow, including the availability of smokejumpers for other seasonal jobs.
Concerns cited in the PPA included the base’s aging bunkhouse. The bunkhouse now has new windows and doors and received approval last week for continued occupancy, said Jessica McCarthy, district representative for Newhouse, at Friday’s meeting.
Next steps in April
The group is preparing for a meeting with regional Forest Service personnel on April 24. The meeting will most likely include a tour of the base followed by a planning session.
The county commissioners sent a letter to the Regional Forester James Peña late last year to invite them to discuss funding for the upgrades and to get a better understanding of the Forest Service process. The commissioners also asked how they could most effectively support the process and the Forest Service’s work.
Because the PPA outlined between $2.8 million and $5.2 million in necessary improvements, “It is important to understand that a precise analysis needs to be performed to determine if objectives can be best achieved with new facilities or modification of existing older facilities, and to develop cost estimates,” said Peña in his response. He estimated that analysis could cost up to $500,000.
Peña also noted that funding for infrastructure projects is scarce and in great demand. “While we remain optimistic for infrastructure improvement legislation, we are extremely challenged in our ability to fund both the analysis/design and the actual construction for these critical capital improvements,” he wrote.
The coalition hopes that more in-depth discussions with the Forest Service in April can avert the need for additional study, which would be time-consuming and costly. Moreover, the PPA already set out three options, said McCarthy.
The Forest Service may not be aware that $1.3 million has already been committed by the state of Washington to repave the runway, which is scheduled for this summer, according to the coalition. The base is located at the Methow Valley State Airport.
Suggestions for replacing the aging structures include a pre-fab metal building at the low end and more costly stick-built wooden construction. Making improvements in phases as financing becomes available is also under consideration.
A primary focus of the meeting with the Forest Service would be to identify partners who can assist with funding. The agency hopes to raise $5 million to $7 million to cover the improvements identified in the PPA. Other financial strategies could include selling 19 acres no longer needed at the base, according to the PPA.