By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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“It's not always the most exciting topic, but infrastructure really does matter when you are talking about the ability for private-sector job growth,” said Derek Kilmer, a professional economist who will be sworn in as Dicks' successor Jan. 3.
“It can be a real difference-maker as to whether a project moves forward or doesn't move forward, or whether private business decides to make an investment or not,” he told Jefferson County commissioners Monday.
At his first official North Olympic Peninsula meetings with a government agency since his election Nov. 6, Rep.-elect Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and a native of Port Angeles, spent about an hour with the Jefferson commissioners.
Updates on two big projects on the east and west sides of the county — sewers for the Port Hadlock area and renovation of Hoh River Road — dominated that meeting.
Afterwards, Kilmer met with supporters at the Cotton Building in Port Townsend.
“Economic development happens on the ground in local communities,” Kilmer said after meeting with the commissioners.
“My role as a member of Congress and my staff's role will be very much focused on meeting with local businesses and determining how we can help them lay the foundation for job growth.”
Kilmer is assembling his local office staff, which he promised “will provide strong access for every family and every business in this district.”
He did not say where, if any, field offices will be located in the 6th District, which sprawls across the Olympic Peninsula and extends through Kitsap County into Tacoma.
The North Olympic Peninsula field office for Dicks in Port Angeles closes at the end of the month.
On Monday, county project planner Joel Peterson briefed Kilmer on the Port Hadlock sewer project, which he said is essential to the economic development of East Jefferson County.
Peterson said the lack of sewer service restricts Tri-Area growth, particularly the ability to provide affordable housing.
“Habitat for Humanity is quite active in Port Townsend and Quilcene, but they have been unable to expand into Port Hadlock until we have an adequate sewer system,” Peterson said.
“There are opportunities for affordable housing that are not met because we are all on septic systems.”
Peterson said the sewer would cost $37 million to construct; $14 million is acquired to date.
He said the county has used the money for final design and expects to have finished construction documents by the end of 2013.
Peterson said he is hoping to narrow the $23 million gap through applications to the state's Public Works Trust Fund and with other capital requests — but federal help also is needed.
“The key is to get as much grant funding as possible so we can lower the overall cost for the customers connecting to the system,” he said.
Kilmer said he understood the predicament as Gig Harbor, where he lives, had to expand its capacity.
“It's a huge deal when a sewer system is at capacity,” he said.
“You have three options: to declare a building moratorium, get funding to expand the capacity or ask people to stop flushing.”
Kilmer promised his support for the Hadlock project.
“It's a shame that sewers aren't cheap, but they are important projects that have a lot of value for the economy and the environment,” he said.
“You can consider me a partner, I am happy to look under every rock I can.”
Kilmer also heard a presentation from county transportation planner Josh Peters about the Hoh River access road that provides the sole access from U.S. Highway 101 to the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park.
The county is charged with the maintenance of 12 miles of road that leads into the national park.
The stretch habitually is plagued by washouts that the county can't afford to repair continuously, Peters said.
“The Hoh Rain Forest is a unique place, right up there with Hurricane Ridge, Crescent Lake and Ocean Shores,” Peters said.
“We used to have the money to do an immediate repair and keep the road open, but we no longer have the resources or the cash flow to make those repairs.”
Peters said the county is seeking federal support in the form of emergency funds to keep the road open, stating that doing so benefits the state, the economy and the tourist trade.
“This is one of the only places that you can see a true old-growth rain forest and get an idea of how things used to be,” said County Commissioner David Sullivan.
“You can get a view of what the real normal is instead of seeing an old-growth forest that has been logged.”
The county is seeking Kilmer's support in an application for emergency relief funds, which would guarantee reimbursement in times of disaster.
The application for the program is due Jan. 25, and Kilmer promised that he would write a letter of support even if he had to do so on hotel stationery.
“I'm sworn in on the 3rd [of January], so I should have letterhead by the 25th,” he smiled.
“We'll work something out.”
Kilmer, a former state legislator, suggested that the county seek state funds that might be available for culvert repair or to repair roads that are necessary for economic development.
“Your need is substantial enough that you may be looking for as many ports in the storm as you can find,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Kilmer didn't have an official meeting scheduled with Clallam County commissioners, though he met socially with Commissioner Mike Doherty on Tuesday night, Doherty said.
Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PDN reporters Rob Ollikainen and Paul Gottlieb contributed to this report.