Washington State’s Best Kept Secret
The City of Yakima
The city of Yakima, Washington, located in the Yakima Valley on the eastern side of Mount Rainier, is a dynamic and vibrant community with a bounty to showcase, economically speaking. The natural beauty of the area paired with the ideal climate makes Yakima an ideal location for the economy and the community to flourish.
Situated in the heart of Washington State where it serves as the county seat for Yakima County, Yakima has a population of over 93,000 and a metropolitan draw of over 240,000. Yakima is located in a rain shadow on the eastern side of the Cascades, where it receives fewer than eight inches of rain annually, resulting in mild winters with plenty of sun and warm summer days and cool nights.
Sean Hawkins, economic development manager for the City of Yakima, explained that the climate is not what most people expect. “For the average person, when they think of Washington State, they have this view in their minds of how wet it is and we are the exact opposite of that. We are on the east side of the mountain, and it’s very dry. It is arid high desert country here.”
Yakima boasts recreational activities year round, as it enjoys more than three hundred days of sun a year and distinct seasons. Whether it’s hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and boating in the summer or snowmobiling and access to great skiing in the winter, the outdoor recreation in the area is exceptional and lacks the over-population of other recreational areas.
Many people are drawn to Yakima due to the affordability of the region. Major urban areas, such as Seattle, are experiencing explosive growth and thus an increasing cost of living. Yakima, however, boasts all the amenities of those larger centres with a far more reasonable price, for a quality of life that is unmatched.
Yakima’s perfect elevation, hot temperatures in the summer and access to a number of lakes and rivers, including the Yakima River which serves as its primary irrigation source, are fantastic assets for the district. These not only serve the recreational component of the community and act as a natural tourism draw, but provide the perfect foundation for a strong economy built upon agriculture and its supporting industries.
Hawkins, referred to the local producers of beer, wine and cider in the area who have taken advantage of the location and optimal agricultural production. “It’s sort of a unique thing. A lot of places have growing beer industries and those types of things but we are one of the only ones that can say it was grown here too.”
Agriculture is the primary driver of Yakima’s economy. Not only does the climate make for active agricultural production, the high-quality yield lends itself well to the supporting food warehousing and processing industries that also call Yakima home. The area is renowned for orchard fruits like apples, pears and peaches as well as grapes, several varieties of vegetables and hops.
Grapes and hops are examples of crops that are sensitive to their environment. The hot temperatures in Yakima – paired with the prime elevation at 1000 feet above sea level – makes for prime growing conditions that produce some of the country’s best yields.
As an agricultural center, Yakima is naturally an exporter of produce to a growing number of markets. Close to eighty percent of the hops grown in the United States are grown in Yakima and as a result, the local area abounds with craft breweries. Wineries, restaurants and boutiques also take advantage of the local agricultural offerings.
“There’s a pretty fierce independent business district or just entrepreneurial spirit in general here,” said Hawkins of the city’s retail offerings. Yakima serves as a retail hub for the county, also serving the vast numbers of tourists who visit the city each year. Last year, $358 million was spent by travelers in Yakima County, with a great deal of that spending occurring right in Yakima.
Tourists are also attracted to Yakima by the multitude of festivals and events that are offered throughout the year. In addition to the Sunday Yakima farmers’ markets, which are well attended, residents and visitors alike flock to the free concerts in the downtown and in the City’s park, as well as a roots and blues music festival. Events are held to celebrate local flavors and the area’s agriculture, the most important of them all is the Fresh Hop Ale Festival which showcases the hop harvest each year.
The Fresh Hop Ale Festival is in its thirteenth year and will take place on October 3, 2015. The event is well attended by residents and visitors alike, as well as many of the nation’s foremost beer and ale producers. The festival celebrates a unique process: within twenty-four hours of the hops being picked, they are thrown into a kettle, and the result is fresh hop ale.
The Fresh Hop Ale Festival has been named one of the top ten beer festivals in the US. Making the list acknowledges the importance of hops to the local economy, as well as the secondary industries that have emerged, such as the craft brew sector, “The whole world of craft brews right now is definitely taking off, but we’ve been ahead of that curve,” proclaimed Hawkins.
Yakima, given its central location in Washington State, also serves as a point of convergence for many conferences and athletic tournaments. To facilitate further growth in this area, a $10 million investment is being made in a multi-field soccer complex to be completed by spring of next year.
“I know our residents are pretty excited about this first-class type of facility for soccer which is very popular here, but also the ability to host tournaments. All those types of things are going to be a big driver for the local economy,” Hawkins said.
Yakima also boasts affordable services. In addition to a strong healthcare sector, five years ago a major investment was made in the community in the form of a new medical school in Yakima.
Using the vitality of the local economy, a significant venture has been made in improving recreational opportunities in the community, ensuring that residents enjoy an exceptional quality of life. “I think it’s the quality of life – the ease of life – that is going to really drive the future of this area.” Smart investments and a strong community spirit are reinforcing the community’s strengths.
In the early 2000s, just as it happened in a number of US cities, retailers tended to abandon the downtown malls, leaving the future of the economic centre in question. With these major retailers moving to the outskirts of the city, significant challenges were faced.
Since the departures, the downtown core has been primarily supported by small businesses, boutiques, restaurants and breweries. New developments have helped to determine the direction of downtown development with a focus on local food, beverage and entertainment. A number of large retail spaces are still available.
“It’s taking time, but it’s definitely paid off, especially in the last two years alone where we’ve seen almost thirty percent sales tax growth in our downtown compared to only fourteen percent in the rest of the city,” Hawkins explained. He added that this growth is supportd by a number of new developments including a hotel, condominium and apartment projects, new restaurants, tasting rooms and breweries.
Additionally, there has been a significant public investment in the North First Street corridor which serves as one of the major gateways into the city. A $15 million investment is being made in this derelict part of the city with high vacancy rates. It is receiving a makeover and the entire corridor is being redone with upgrades being made to the street, sidewalks, landscaping and a new approach to the area’s façade.
Hawkins believes that investors will respond positively to this investment and pays tribute to the businesses that have remained in operation in the area, even as it fell into disrepair. With property values at reasonable rates, in addition to the significant public investment, the area promises to stimulate new economic activity in Yakima.
Yakima is not only a community with an excellent location, it also has great transportation access, which is a necessity to support the growing economy as the markets for its agriculture continue to expand. There is direct access to I-82 and it is located just two hours from Seattle. The local airport, McAllister Field, operates four flights a day to Seattle via Alaska Airlines.
Moving forward, community leaders in Yakima will continue the investment in agriculture, and seek new markets for the area’s harvests. Investing in agriculture and its supporting industries will offer an excellent quality of life and experiences to both residents and visitors.
Yakima is Washington State’s best kept secret when you consider the cost of living and the spirit of the community, all set amongst the most beautiful natural surroundings. “All that stuff is tremendously important to us, and if we keep focusing on making this a great place to live, economically, a lot of things are going to happen naturally out of that,” Hawkins concluded.