Still Rural, but Not the Sticks Anymore : Growth: The '90s brought computers, aerospace and banking. Now Eastern Washington's 1 million people are reaching for more political power.


This is the flatter, browner Washington--the Washington known primarily for apple cores and reactor cores; the one with the lion's share of the land and the lamb's share of the people.

But arid and rural Eastern Washington--separated from the western portion by the Cascade Range--is suddenly attracting jobs and population.

"Right now we're looking at rural areas and urban areas in Eastern Washington that are probably riding high compared to where they have been over the last decade," said Gary Smith, economist at Washington State University in Pullman.

The 1980s were hard on the state's eastern section. The farm economy slumped and jobs were slashed at Hanford nuclear reservation, the state's largest employer.

But as the 1990s dawned, farm products brought record revenues, Hanford went on a hiring spree and Spokane, the region's big city, began luring out-of-town companies such as Seattle-based Boeing.

The region of 1 million people is also reaching for more political power. Already it is home to U.S. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Spokane. Now Republican Rep. Sid Morrison of the Yakima Valley is trying to become the first governor from Eastern Washington since 1936.

"Eastern Washington can no longer be reduced to urban stereotyping," said John Carlson of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies in Bellevue, Wash. "Those that do are living in the past."

* Spokane still services mining, logging and farming. But these days its growth industries are computers, aerospace and banking.

* Yakima is still a leading food producer, but one in four people is a Latino and city leaders seek more industry. Housing prices in the city have increased by a double-digit rate in each of the past two years.

* More than 15,000 people work at the Hanford nuclear reservation near the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco. But instead of making plutonium, the workers are transforming the site into a high-tech laboratory to clean up the nation's largest collection of nuclear waste.

As are many other states--the east and west in Pennsylvania, Upstate and Downstate New York and Illinois, Northern and Southern California--Washington has long been divided.

In recent years, lawmakers from western Washington have tried to curb growth, regulate farming and stop nuclear weapons production at Hanford--all issues that strike at the heart of the east.

The result is an imaginary barrier known as "The Cascade Curtain." Last year, Republican state Sen. Pat Patterson of Pullman proposed, only half jokingly, that the curtain be closed, and that Washington be split in two.

"None of those people has the slightest idea what it's like to live on this side of the state, what economic development meant and how people think differently," Patterson complained.

Though Eastern Washington exports electricity from mighty Columbia and Snake river dams--along with aluminum, recreation vehicles and computer keyboards--food production is the biggest moneymaker.

Most of the nation's apples, cherries and mint are grown here. The hops that flavor beer are grown here. Much of the nation's grape juice and fast-food French fries are produced here. So are world-class wines.

But the food production jobs are low-paying and seasonal, and have created a pool of workers who suffer high unemployment, low incomes and few prospects for better lives. Many of these people are illegal immigrants from Mexico, who have flooded into the central portion of the state in the last 20 years and become the majority in many small farming towns.

Meanwhile, the west--led by the growth of Boeing--cashed in on the nation's booming economy during the Reagan Administration.

While the west's population grew by 21% during the 1980s, the east's rose only 7.6%, less than the national average.

And by the end of the decade, the east was home to 22% of the state's population, though it has 65% of the state's land.

Even now, no one is calling Eastern Washington a boom area. The kind of high-paying, year-round industrial and high-tech jobs that have made Seattle burst at its seams are not plentiful; there is a lack of skilled workers and a lack of developed industrial land.

At the behest of Westerners concerned about growth in the Puget Sound area, Washington has stopped recruiting out-of-state corporations.

This riles people in the east.

"Colorado and Arizona have offices in Southern California. The state of Washington is just manning the phones," said Jim Toomey of the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council. "We want that state office in California."

And Eastern Washington remains that part of every state that is dismissed as politically backward, devoid of attractions and peopled by bumpkins.

Victor Moore, a Pullman artist and unsuccessful political candidate, thinks Eastern Washington should play up its urban attributes--such as universities and the arts--to attract growth.

Wineries, espresso carts and bustling malls are as much a part of the landscape as sagebrush and rolling wheat fields. In 1990, Yakima was ranked the 25th best city in the country by Money magazine. Spokane was 32nd.

The cities should stop defining themselves by whatever nearby farm commodity first justified their existence, Moore said. "You have to overcome that image if you want to get different industry or occupations to come in," Moore said. "Any really good professional people want a more stimulating lifestyle than 'Hee-Haw.' "

Facts About Eastern Washington

Population--1,080,976, larger than Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Urban areas--Spokane, 361,364; Yakima 188,823; Richland-Kennewick-Pasco, 150,033.

Other cities--Walla Walla, 26,478; Pullman 23,478; Wenatchee 21,756; Ellensburg 12,361; Sunnyside 11,238; Moses Lake 11,235.

Per capita income--In 1989: Eastern Washington $15,297, Western Washington $18,388.

Celebrities--Well-known personalities from Eastern Washington include actors Kyle McLachlan (Twin Peaks) of Yakima and Craig T. Nelson (Coach) of Spokane, Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien of Spokane, Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg of Spokane, Utah Jazz guard John Stockton of Spokane and Toronto pitcher Todd Stottlemyre of Yakima.

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