By MIKE BENBOW
Economic development officials decided Friday to allocate as much as $3.5 million in public and private money during the next five years to lure high-tech firms to Snohomish County.
It’s a high-stakes gamble with a potential payoff of $2.7 billion and one the county can’t afford to pass up, said Deborah Knutson, chief executive of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.
"We need to tell our story, especially when there are choices to be made," she said. "If we’re not on somebody’s radar screen, we won’t be a choice at all."
Knutson said King County has seen dramatic growth in high-tech firms in recent years, so much so that many companies are looking to relocate or to expand elsewhere.
She’d like Snohomish County to be that elsewhere.
"The target will be the high-tech jobs that we have far fewer of than King County," she said.
The plan approved Friday by the EDC board, a group of 40 people from private business, local governments and local educational institutions, calls for spending as much as $700,000 a year for the next five to aggressively pursue more higher-paying jobs in technology.
The money would be used in four key areas: bringing in new businesses, helping existing businesses to stay here and to expand, increasing marketing and worker training efforts, and improving the permit process and infrastructure such as power and fiber-optic cable.
Knutson said a consultant hired by EDC, R&M Resource Development of Denver, estimated the five-year initiative could create 4,000 new jobs with an annual wage of $38,000 to $45,000.
That’s important, she said, because the county’s median salary, once the highest in the state because of the Boeing Co., is now more than $12,000 behind King County’s.
Last year, the median pay for county workers here was $52,063, compared to $64,795 in King County. Median means half the workers make more and half were paid less.
The new jobs, the spinoff jobs they would create and other related economic activity could be worth some $2.7 billion, according to the consultant’s study. But the main focus is on better-paying jobs.
"Look at all the people (from the county) sitting on I-5 going south every day," Knutson said. "We’ve got the employees here already."
The project, while endorsed by the EDC board, rests solely on the agency’s ability to collect the money to pay for it. Public and private agencies pay about $300,000 a year now, and they’ll be asked to pay more, Knutson said.
But the EDC intends to contract with its Denver consultants to broaden greatly its base of contributors. "We can’t continue to go to the same group of investors who support everything in the county," she said. "There are growing numbers of high-tech companies in the county that need to participate because they will benefit from this as well."
While much of the money will go for additional employees who will be able to make more direct contacts to companies, a significant amount would also be used to tell the county’s story.
Knutson noted that Tacoma, which used public money to install a huge amount of fiber-optic cable needed by high-tech firms, is already promoting itself heavily.
"They’re trying to reap their investment back," she said. "Tacoma is the one that’s out there now. But we have a lot of fiber-optic opportunity here. Nobody knows about it because it was done with private money."
You can call Herald Writer Mike Benbow at 425-339-3459or send e-mail
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