Officials: Population hurts retail pull

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— The community's anemic population growth in recent years has weakened its appeal for potential retail development, officials said this week.

Walla Walla's growth has been so slight in recent years -- even to the degree that it went backward two years ago -- that it's working against the community in an increasingly competitive environment for retail recruitment, Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz said.

Kuntz, Port Economic Development Director Paul Gerola and Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University's Institute for Public Policy, presented the most recent figures and projections during Tuesday's Port Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

The bottom line: The picture isn't getting much better than when Port officials declared this a problem two years ago. With a slow-to-recover national economy, the chance of landing a big retail developer has only gotten that much more challenging, they said.

"The population is really working against us," Kuntz told a conference room packed with business executives, owners and representatives of various industries.

Ideally the population would grow at about 1 to 2 percent a year, a manageable amount for infrastructure and development. However, according to estimates from the state Office of Financial Management, the population in, College Place, Prescott, Waitsburg, Walla Walla and the unincorporated areas grew in 2011 by only 0.03 percent to 58,800 people. That was up from a negative 0.71 percent in 2010, when the population dropped to 58,781 from the previous year.

So far for 2012, the estimated mid-year population is up to 59,100, an increase of 0.51 percent that is higher than the last two years but still lags the state estimate of 0.7 percent for 2012.

Kuntz acknowledged there may be some debate in the community whether the slow growth is seen as problematic. But when it comes to economic development, he said there's no question.

"These numbers aren't good for bankers. These numbers aren't good for schools. These numbers aren't good for development," he said.

Though Walla Walla continues to make national headlines as a destination for wine, food and art, and was dubbed the country's Friendliest Small Town last year by Rand McNally and USA Today, the visibility isn't translating to new residents.

The population figures include the prison population of about 2,300 people. Furthermore, Jones, who oversees the Walla Walla Trends website, said the numbers themselves don't give the whole picture. In 2011, though people left the community, the growth was more indicative of the ratio of births to deaths in the community. "There's been a steady decline of people moving in," Jones said.

Since 2000, Walla Walla County's population has moved at a pace "considerably below the benchmarks."

The impact of that became more clear to those in economic development during an International Council of Shopping Centers trade show earlier this year in Las Vegas. The Port, city of Walla Walla and city of College Place traveled to the event to showcase the Walla Walla Valley in a unified movement.

College Place City Administrator Pat Reay said the "harsh reality" of development was clear. He repeated the oft-said conventional wisdom that "retail follows rooftops." "We're not having a lot of new rooftops," Reay said during Tuesday's meeting.

Many national retailers are looking outside of the U.S. for their development. Some who do plan to grow domestically have higher expectations for incentives. Cabela's, for instance, has come to expect zero expense for land development and partnerships in construction for infrastructure suppport.

Walla Walla is also competing against the Tri-Cities, which is growing at an enviable pace and chock full of existing retail.

The community, officials said, still has much appeal because of its tourism and wine industries. But the best bets for new development may come through the city's work with the Buxton Group, a company that has analyzed the marketplace to identify retailers that would be most likely to succeed here.

"There still is interest," Reay said. "It's just not the interest we saw in 2005, '06 and '07."

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