So where's the plan?

Thurston County's Economic Development Council is more than a year-and-a-half behind its goal of creating a countywide plan for recruiting new businesses - and jobs that pay well - to the county.

About 100 South Sound leaders launched the effort to create an economic development plan during an economic summit in summer 2005.

At the time, EDC executive director Michael Cade estimated that it would take four months to draft a plan for discussion.

But 21 months later, no draft has been made public.

"It is a work in progress," Cade said this month. He said he has been too busy following business leads and too understaffed to complete a draft plan.

"It's part of my yearly work plan," he said. "I wish I had a staff of 50 to put this together, but I don't. I'm working as hard as I can."

During the 2005 summit, Port of Olympia commissioner Bob Van Schoorl said that a development plan would make it easier for the county's civic leaders to rally around a coordinated economic development strategy. The plan would complement the development efforts of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

"It's time for us to start thinking regionally. It's time to stop thinking parochially," he said.

Van Schoorl said he hoped the summit would result in action to recruit more jobs that pay well to Thurston County. Without them, he said, some people would have to move out of the county for jobs and others might be forced to lengthen their commutes to jobs outside the county.

"If we don't attract more family-wage jobs, we're all going to suffer," said Olympia banker Mike Edwards, an EDC board member. "We want to strengthen our employment base to maintain a healthy economy."

In The Olympian's 2007 Economic Outlook section in today's paper, state officials say that employment in the county continues to grow but that most of the available jobs are relatively low-paying.

Van Schoorl doesn't think the summit was a waste of time, but he expected more to result from it.

"At least we still had a discussion," he said. "But I think we need another summit."

Even without an economic development plan, the county's three largest cities don't usually compete with one another for jobs. That's because the cities each have representatives on the EDC's board of directors, Edwards said.

"As a result, we are able to deal collectively with economic development," Edwards said. "There's not an issue we work on where we do not cross-check with each other."

Nonetheless, Van Schoorl likened Thurston County's lack of a coordinated economic

development strategy to building a puzzle without a notion of what picture the assembled pieces will show.

"The most important piece is the picture on the cover of the puzzle box," Van Schoorl said. "If you don't know what the picture is, you're just moving pieces around the table."

At least twice before, South Sound economic development officials have tried but failed to draw up a coordinated countywide development strategy, said Dennis Matson, Cade's predecessor at the EDC.

But even without such a plan, the South Sound economy has remained healthy with relatively low unemployment and steady growth.

Last summer, Cade credited the EDC with helping to bring 640 jobs to Thurston County in the three years since he arrived here from a Snohomish County economic development agency. He cited the move from Colorado to Hawks Prairie of the biotechnology companies known as Econet, which employ about 160 people, and the move from Seattle to Hawks Prairie of the mint oil supplier I.P. Callison, which employs about 30.

In the past year, two major tourist attractions also have been proposed or begun construction in the county.

The Great Wolf Lodge, with an indoor water park and a conference center, is under construction at Grand Mound and would employ 500. A Cabela's outdoors sporting goods store plans to open this year in Hawks Prairie, bringing 350 retail jobs to Lacey.

Earlier this month, Cade wrote a seven-page memo to his directors taking responsibility for not having produced a written

economic development strategy. In the memo, he listed numerous outcomes from the summit and economic development accomplishments. They included:

Identifying professional services, health care, life sciences and manufacturing as industries to target for recruitment to Thurston County.

The opening of a downtown Olympia small business incubator by the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce.

Plans to develop a county economic index in the next year in cooperation with Saint Martin's University. Such an index would trace the county's available labor pool and employment to gauge growth of the South Sound economy.

Organizing South Sound manufacturers into a forum for periodic discussions of mutual needs.

Identifying China and South Korea as markets for South Sound businesses and participating in China trade missions.

The lack of an EDC strategy is a "good news-bad news" situation, Edwards said.

"We haven't set in concrete a regional economic development plan, but we have yet to fall off the edge of the planet by not having one," he said. "We've been so darned busy we haven't had a lot of time to put pen to paper."

Cade operates with a $320,000 budget of donations from the cities in the county and the Port of Olympia, as well as private contributions. It is the smallest budget of all the economic development bodies in Western Washington, he said.

Some argue that the need for an economic development plan is growing.

Larger Western Washington counties have joined forces to target certain industries to

attract. King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties collaborate on economic development, said Bill McSherry, economic development director of the Puget Sound Regional Council.

The counties target recruitment efforts for industries including aerospace, high technology and tourism, as well as companies that serve Western Washington's military presence, McSherry said.

"By knowing what industries drive our economies, we know where to focus our efforts because we have scarce resources," he said.

South Sound government officials have been patient about the lack of a coordinated development plan.

"Though it would be nice to have, the proof is what economic development is happening out there in the field," said Greg Cuoio, Lacey's city manager. "I'm not aware we've been hampered not having a written plan."

Development and growth are occurring in his city and beyond despite the lack of a countywide strategy, Cuoio said. He cited major distribution facilities planned in Tumwater, office and potential condominium developments in downtown Olympia and a Port of Olympia that is successfully upgrading its rail capabilities for cargo growth.

The economic development summit was productive even if it has fallen short of its goal, said David Schaffert, president and chief executive of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce.

"Part of the goal was to engage in conversation about economic development," he said. "I look at the growth that has occurred here. Boy, a lot has happened the past two years."

Olympia City Councilman Joe Hyer thinks Cade's initiative might have been too ambitious.

"It could be a two- or three-year process to get a plan in place," Hyer said. "I wasn't expecting to see a document labeled a plan. Things change. By the time we get it done, we might have to re-do it."

Hyer also thinks some communities struggle with regional plans because they can't agree on what they mean by economic development.

Cade and Edwards pledged to continue working to produce an economic development draft.

"We at least ought to get an outline done," Edwards said. "We are limited to what we can do with a 4.5-member staff."