Niehenke pursuing economic growth

RITZVILLE – The Adams County Development Council executive director describes himself as a salesman for the county.

“On any given day, I’m working with Ritzville City Council on local issues or trying to encourage new regional or national businesses to locate in Adams County,” said Kyle Niehenke, 33. “My focus in Ritzville is getting us ready for development.”

The goal is different in Othello, the largest city in Adams County.

“In Othello, we’re working on different issues than Ritzville,” he said. “They have more people and a different ecosystem for industry. Simplot and other large processing plants, for example, are a good fit for that area.”

Niehenke outlined several characteristics making Ritzville an excellent candidate for development.

“Our road infrastructure is stellar,” he said. “Ritzville is on one of the busiest stretches of I-90 in the state; Highway 395 bleeds into that and Highway 261 goes south.

“Every 25 minutes, the BNSF railroad blasts through town carrying millions of dollars in freight from Tacoma to Chicago.”

He observed that the town is centrally located between the Tri-Cities, Moses Lake and Spokane. “We also have relatively cheap power compared to other places in the nation and a lot of vacant land,” he said.

“We should lean into those advantages.”

One of the biggest hindrances to growth, according to Niehenke, is a lack of housing.

“The apartment buildings have waiting lists and rental houses are snatched up quickly,” he said. “We need every housing type – duplexes, triplexes, apartments and permanent housing for people in the middle-to-upper income range.

“In today’s interest rate environment, housing in the $300,000-range would still be competitive.”

Adding more housing for the “missing-middle” segment of homeowners would also increase the town’s appeal, Niehenke said.

Assisted-living and more-accessible senior housing units are also needed, he said.

Niehenke notes that Ritzville has a good local hospital and a 9-hole golf course that’s a huge bonus for retirees.

Staff at the local hospital and school district have told him there’s also a need for higher-end apartments.

“That type of housing would work for people employed in Ritzville who don’t live here full time,” he said.

Eventually, Niehenke hopes to schedule community and stakeholder forums to get input for creating a comprehensive economic development strategy.

“As a county, we’ve only written small strategic planning documents,” he said. “We haven’t developed a plan that inventories and analyzes all our resources.

“Othello, Lind, WashtucnaRitzville and the county as a whole – all will factor into that document.”

He said an economic strategty will help stakeholders identify community assets and focus on practical realities.

For now, Niehenke outlined certain drawbacks to growth.

“If our costs and fees are not competitive, our assets won’t matter,” he said. “We’ll get bypassed. If you take the Galbreaths and Schafers – two local developers – out of the picture, there’s not a third party knocking on our door. Nobody’s saying, ‘Hey, let me in, I want to develop there.'”

Niehenke said he’s been told by site selectors that the city is not competitive.

“Some say Ritzville is simply not competitive in terms of pricing or communication,” he said. “I’m hoping to change that.”

He also notes that site selectors and corporations want a lot of advance preparation.

“One big term in the industry is ‘site readiness,'” he said. “Developers want ground that has water, power, sewer and internet already in place. They want ground that enables them to get a permit and start construction as soon as possible.”

Niehenke hopes to foster a business environment that will benefit residents and be a good fit for the city.

“We want industries we can all get behind,” he said. “I’m not targeting businesses that would destroy what we have here.”

One cause for optimism is the broadband project being rolled out in Othello, Ritzville and Lind. “Thankfully, our county commissioners went after this grant,” he said. “When we get high-speed internet, whether it’s a year from now or longer, we’ll advance to the next development stage.

“We’re always going to be a small town, but we can be a small town with better opportunities.”

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