OLYMPIA – When COVID-19 came to town, Thurston County community and economic development agencies jumped into action by creating a collaborative, collective impact response model that has since yielded millions in funding for Thurston County businesses, nonprofits, and impacted workers.
As local economic development practitioners began to realize the scale of impact COVID-19 might wreak on Thurston County, they got down to business. By the third week of March 2020, the team had formed what came to be known as Thurston Strong. Building on prior partnership initiatives and understanding robust response strategies would require resource-leveraging. The Thurston Strong Task Force adopted a regional “respond, recover, reset” program. The quick action and philosophy paid off. Thurston Strong has generated millions of dollars in business and nonprofit aid, expedited benefits for impacted workers, and facilitated faster business recovery at each stage of reopening.
Meeting weekly and working around the clock, the Task Force delivered over $12 million in local, Washington State Department of Commerce and federal Cares Act pass-through grants to microbusinesses, childcare providers, nonprofit organizations, minority enterprises, and food system producers and manufacturers throughout Thurston County. Under the leadership of the Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC), and with support from many community partners, Thurston Strong also helped distribute considerable direct relief aid provided by Thurston County and the cities of Lacey, Olympia, Tenino, and Tumwater.
The Task Force business hotline and technical assistance program handled more than 10,000 emergency calls. It helped local enterprises secure more than $100 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, at an average value of just over $30,000 per business or nonprofit. Early on, the Task Force was able to locally source and distribute over 100,000 disposable masks and 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer.
The Task Force also collected, distilled, and transmitted real-time resource information to dislocated workers and employers searching for answers through a central website, thurstonstrong.org. Over the past year, the site hosted over 15,000 unique visitors and became a model emulated by other regions statewide.
The Task Force is now coordinating with local jurisdictions to develop a 24-month “recovery and reset” plan focused on building a more inclusive economy, strengthening economic resiliency, and growing economic opportunity. Goals include: creating career pathways for more people, in higher-paying occupations; distributing another $12 million in grant funding to expedite the relaunch of severely impacted businesses and venues; jump-starting opportunity for minority-owned enterprises; offering new business model training for a post-COVID economy; expanding job corps and skill training options for dislocated workers.
The Thurston Strong Task Force core team includes representatives from the following jurisdictions and organizations: Thurston County, City of Lacey, City of Olympia, City of Tumwater, The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, Experience Olympia & Beyond, Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, Port of Olympia, Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, and the Thurston Economic Development Council. Professional assistance is provided by J Robertson & Company.
Over the next year, the Task Force will add new workforce and training partners, including South Puget Sound Community College, as focus shifts to employment reentry and equal access to career opportunities. A video synopsis of the Thurston Strong story is available for viewing at www.ThurstonStrong.org.