Last year, Renyel and William Doremus carved out their little piece of oasis amid Eastern Washington’s vast and sundrenched arid lands. Despite the recession elsewhere, the young couple built a new house in the sagebrush-studded lee
of Badger Mountain in Richland. They could pose for a Gap ad as the all-American family: clean-cut, involved parents,
smiling children, family baseball games and trips to Disneyland.
Renyel works as a hairdresser and William helps clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Their new abode even sports a cozy home salon where Renyel can receive clients. But lately, Renyel says, those clients have been talking of putting off buying houses they’re qualified for, delaying parenthood and looking for new employment. Renyel and William themselves are saving like squirrels.
“I had blood drawn today,” Renyel says. “I’ve noticed my anxiety has gone up; my mind doesn’t shut off at night.”
Anxiety like Renyel’s is rippling through the seemingly bucolic Tri-Cities. It’s discussed in marital beds and quietly between
workers in early-morning carpools.
Thousands of workers—3,000 as of December 2010—were hired for projects at the Hanford site when the government
cleanup project received about $1.96 billion of federal stimulus money. Most of that funding has been spent and the rest is set to be used by September. Some Hanford contractors have already announced layoffs of up to 1,600 workers come fall. Coupled with the end of the stimulus are forecasts of a lean federal budget for scheduled cleanup at Hanford and an unsteady future for scientific work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. Families of Ph.D. scientists and union electricians alike are scrambling to figure out what the next move may be. Many near-retirement workers were hoping for buyouts or early retirement packages, but federal contractors have signaled that regular layoffs at Hanford will be more likely. And if that’s true, more freshly trained and young workers will be sent looking for new opportunities beyond the site.
This flood of change worries shop owners and restaurateurs in the Tri-Cities area of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland. They’ve been expanding their businesses the past few years. Even late on a weeknight, it can be hard to get a table at Katya’s Bistro and Wine Bar in Richland. James Hartley and his wife, Maryna, own and run it. Maryna often scrutinizes the plates coming out of the kitchen and James can usually be seen chatting with regulars over his selections of newfound Washington wines. He says he noticed a bit of an increase in business in 2009, but then in 2010 it really hit. Steaks, seafood and racks of lamb were whirling out of his kitchen. And a $12-a-glass Oregon Pinot Noir has been a top seller.
“We didn’t know what it was that caused that, but we were really happy that’s been happening,” James says.
But the uncertain future has the Hartleys and others uneasy. The recession might yet hit the Tri-Cities, and it won’t be a gentle slide—it could be all at once.
“You don’t lose that many people in the community and with that much money without some sort of impact,” James
He hopes that Tri-Cities leaders work to make Hanford a smaller slice of the economic pie for the region. “You need to bring in others that can stop the job losses that will happen,” he says. “I’ve seen so many big opportunities go away fromthis community.”
Big players in the Tri-Cities are trying to build up other industries. But the economic impact of the four-lane river of vehicle headlights headed to the hanford
site early each weekday morning is hard
Gary Petersen is known for his optimism. He’s the vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development
Council and a nonstop cheerleader for this community nestled into a bend of the Columbia river. But even Petersen admits the federal budget upheaval and an end to federal stimulus dollars might bring head-spinning economic change to
“People here at Hanford are very concerned about the mood in Congress and especially in the house,” he notes. “We have to make sure they understand what happens with a cut budget.”
Still, leaders in the Tri-Cities are working on new economic lifeboats. The Port of Benton is busy developing the next major
phase of its Vintner’s Village in prosser. Just a couple of years old, the grouping of wine facilities is already a magnet for
large buses and vanloads of wine tasters from Seattle. The port is also working to build out its Richland Innovation Center,
which will be a place where Hanford innovations are tested and some developed commercially.
Jan Jackson, director of marketing for the port, is optimistic and says the end of federal stimulus at Hanford is “going to be a bump in the road, but long term, it’s going to be growth.”
“Nuke tourism” is also booming in the Tri-Cities. kayaks and jet boats ply the Columbia for a glimpse of cocooned reactors, and large buses rove down gravel roads through the once top-secret site. government- led Hanford-site tours are approaching rock-concert status. The 2,500 tickets available for this year’s tour dates were snapped up in only eight hours.
A new energy park is also on the way. The federal government has set aside 60 square miles of the Hanford site for industrial
use. This area could be used for research, manufacturing or energy generation. The land is situated at the southern tip of Hanford and was a buff er zone never used for weapons production, so it’s uncontaminated. Right now, Hanford and Tri-City Development Council offi cials are trying to land some customers and gather community insight for the project.
Back in the shadow of Badger Mountain, Renyel and William Doremus are looking into online training classes and he is trying to find more stable work before September. Renyel says she’s not worried about the money, but she is worried about
her family’s stability.
“We have family here. They [my kids] will always have shoes,” she says. “I worry about William having to go somewhere else to support our family. I worry about having to be kind of a single parent.”
Although she’s anxious about her family’s future, Renyel says she’s lived in the Tri-Cities her entire life. Her father worked at Hanford and supported his family through layoff scares. She, like many here, can’t picture roosting anywhere else.
“It’s a good place to raise a family,” Renyel says. “I love our weather here. We have all the different seasons. It just feels