A Packwood where Dave Matthews Band plays in a large outdoor venue. A Packwood with a cohesive “theme.” A Packwood with a pottery shop, water park and pharmacy.
That was the vision sketched out Thursday night, when residents at a well-attended town meeting hashed out what a new, expanded Packwood could look like.
What unlocked the seemingly endless possibilities? Funding to replace septic tanks with a town-wide sewer system. The critical piece of infrastructure could be the key to more housing, businesses and attractions.
It’s a “long time coming,” according to Eric Sonnenberg of the Lewis Economic Development Council (EDC). In fact, some residents have been pushing for a sewer for more than two decades.
This year, $8 million was secured for the project from the Legislature, in part thanks to Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, who served as the assistant ranking member of the House Capital Budget Committee.
The first-term lawmaker is a self-proclaimed “sewers guy,” and has affectionately deemed sewers his “love language.”
“I saw opportunities to work on a number of different infrastructure projects, and the one infrastructure project that rose to the top was the idea of sewers in Packwood,” Abbarno told the crowd Thursday, noting that it seemed like a “long shot.”
A new sewer system would not only speed up economic development, officials noted, but could also address environmental concerns.
“We know how (septic tanks) work,” said County Commissioner Gary Stamper, whose district includes Packwood and most of East Lewis County. “At some point, they’re going to fail. We know they’re working fine now, but they’re going to fail.”
Now, the hope is to create what Stamper called a “game plan” for the community. According to County Manager Erik Martin, Lewis County will acquire a consultant to figure out exactly what the sewer system will look like, and the project could be complete by 2024.
Already, Stamper said businesses are “nibbling around the edges, looking potentially to move up here.” And the county’s plan to petition the federal government to remove Packwood from the zoned flood plain could also streamline development.
Sonnenberg said the EDC’s goal is to listen to the community and figure out what they want to move in, and what they want to keep out. A repeat of the Crystal Geyser fiasco, Stamper added, would not be ideal.
In 2019, the company attempted to move into nearby Randle, proposing to pull 400 gallons of water per minute from the Cowlitz watershed for bottling and sale. The move sparked intense opposition from locals, as well as environmental groups. The situation was made worse, according to Stamper, by a lack of communication by Crystal Geyser. Some residents, he said, thought the bottling plant was a “conspiracy” that the county supported.
“It’s good that they’re gone,” he said Thursday. “I said we’re never going to make this mistake again, and I believe in transparency all the way.”
Thursday’s meeting will be the first of many, Stamper noted.
Visions of what Packwood could look like with a sewer system varied.
While some residents described jungle gyms or youth attractions that could draw in young families, others questioned whether that demographic would ever move to the isolated town, where some have to drive 40 minutes just to pick up prescriptions.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to be realistic about what you have. The reason we don’t have a lot of new families starting here is because the timber industry went tits up,” said Kirt Demientieff, a resident of four years. “As much as you’d like to say ‘well this is a great place to raise kids,’ well yeah it is — it would be — but it’s too damn expensive.”
The recent push to expand broadband infrastructure, though, could make remote work in Packwood more feasible, some attendees pointed out.
Nat Woodsmith, head brewer for Packwood Brewing Co., said sewers would make it easier to actually brew beer at their facility. Currently, Woodsmith brews batches near Yakima and Tacoma.
Others suggested Packwood should capitalize on its strengths: views, wildlife and endless recreation options between Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. The town could look to draw in businesses offering guided tours or bike rentals, some said.
“Tourism is king,” Stamper echoed.
Josh Peterson, owner of Base Camp Coffee on Packwood’s main drag — U.S. Highway 12 — said the town’s old mill site should be converted into an outdoor concert venue, like the Gorge Amphitheatre, which regularly holds shows and multi-day festivals.
“That would create jobs for everyone here,” Peterson said. “It’s not going to blow the city up to where it’s huge, you know? They’ll leave.”
The idea gets at the heart of concerns felt by many locals — that the town will draw in too many, too quickly. Concerns that local Airbnbs are already pricing residents out and that large trucks could soon be regularly barreling through Packwood were also discussed Thursday.
Peterson told The Chronicle that he doesn’t want the town to grow swiftly into Las Vegas, but he also doesn’t want to see it wither into a “ghost town.”
Officials will likely return to Packwood in the fall to continue discussing the sewer and economic development prospects.
“And by that time, we probably should have a few more answers on some timelines,” Stamper said.