A year like no other: Commerce teams step up to take on 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic barreled in to 2020 like a wrecking ball. As a relatively small state agency with about 370 employees who lead nearly 100 programs related to economic and community development, every team within the state Department of Commerce was called in to the response in some way.

The pandemic didn’t cause just a public health crisis, but an economic crisis as well. Nationally and in Washington state, entire sectors were shut down as officials tried to contain the deadly virus. To help blunt the economic fallout of the pandemic, the governor’s office released millions of dollars in emergency funding and Congress passed the CARES Act. Commerce played a central role in delivering those aid dollars to communities. The agency distributed nearly $200 million for businesses and nonprofits, $110 million to households for rent assistance, and more than $450 million to local governments and Tribes around the state.

More than 30 employees were activated to the state’s emergency operations center while dozens more pivoted within the agency to support the unprecedented volume of work necessary to quickly process thousands of business grants, rent assistance contracts and other supports for community partners around the state. The almost-overnight switch to a virtual work environment required the agency to quickly adopt secure new online tools for managing contracts, documents, employee meetings, workflow and more.

A response of this magnitude required help from private, philanthropic and community-based organizations. Commerce engaged in new partnerships to spur manufacturing and distribution of personal protective equipment, fund safety supplies for child care providers, provide culturally and linguistically appropriate support for underserved businesses, and more. Check here for a full summary of the agency’s COVID response efforts.

Washington state’s recovery has been slow but steady, but experts agree this is a different kind of recession from what we’ve experienced in the past. Economic impacts vary significantly among different industries, counties and communities. Commerce developed an Economic Recovery Dashboard to help state and local leaders focus recovery efforts on the communities and sectors facing disproportionate challenges. This includes rural communities as well as women, communities of color, people with lower incomes, and indigenous people.

Yet, even as dozens of employees were immersed in the pandemic response, the agency continued many crucial initiatives related to energy policy, poverty reduction, economic development, housing, child care, equity, behavioral health and more.

Here’s a look back at five notable accomplishments at Commerce during this unusual and challenging year.

Maintaining momentum for universal broadband access

COVID-19 highlighted the stark divides between those who have access to reliable internet service and those who don’t.

Businesses pivoted to online operations. Students and educators shifted to virtual classrooms. Many Washingtonians connected with their doctors from their laptops and phones instead of in offices. That left most people who didn’t have access to the internet without the ability to work, learn or receive non-urgent care.

To meet the sudden need for thousands of Washingtonians who don’t have access to the internet, the State Broadband Office within Commerce rallied partners around the state to quickly launch a network of hundreds of free drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots.

At the same time, the office continued making progress on the state’s goal of broadband access for all by 2024. The team launched an innovative Access and Speed Survey to gather data needed by communities to identify service gaps and connect projects with federal FCC and USDA broadband funding opportunities, alongside state funding programs provided by the Public Works Board and the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB). Based on the 42,000 responses received to-date in the survey, the trend shows 45% of the state has no service available or very slow internet speeds of less than 10Mbps download.

The office’s broadband feasibility and grant maximization initiative kicked off with a $207,000 privately funded grant program from Better Health Together to secure competitive federal funding for broadband projects in eastern Washington. This funding has already contributed to five of seven new applications from Washington state submitted to the 2020 USDA Community Connect broadband grants program.

The team’s role as matchmaker payed off when they helped the Hoh Tribe connect with SpaceX to launch its beta Starlink satellite internet. The new technology put the Tribe in headlines around the nation and connected its rural households to much-needed high speed broadband internet service.

Forging Washington’s clean energy future

Commerce’s Energy division has been at the forefront of implementing several of the state’s nation-leading clean energy policies. The governor’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, passed in 2019, is among the most aggressive policies in the nation to transition the state to 100% clean energy. Commerce led the extensive rule-making effort for this policy, along with rules for the state’s new clean buildings and appliance efficiency policies. In addition, Commerce led an extensive stakeholder process to develop the 2021 State Energy Strategy and is helping fund electric vehicle infrastructure and weatherization projects.

In developing these policies and programs, Commerce made significant changes to its approach with a particular focus on equity. The Energy team committed to learning from and prioritizing communities that have historically been the most harmed by pollution or least likely to benefit from energy investments that create new infrastructure and jobs. Their equity-centered process is one Commerce hopes to build on and incorporate throughout the agency. With leadership and policy support, Washington state is well positioned to create new opportunities for frontline communities to play an active role in creating a resilient, clean and equitable energy future.

Commerce this year also commissioned the Weatherization Workforce Roadmap report, a study completed by the Washington State University Energy Program to examine workforce challenges among the state’s low-income weatherization network. The study noted that energy efficiency employment is expected to grow, but recruiting, retaining and developing qualified weatherization professionals has been a long-term challenge for agencies and their contractors. Commerce is applying the study recommendations to connect local weatherization agencies and contractors with state and regional workforce development and employment services agencies to expand the future weatherization workforce. Commerce will also work with network partners to attract students and job-seekers to weatherization and related clean energy careers.

Attracting new business investments that create new jobs

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Washington’s underlying economic strength continued to attract new business investments. This was especially true in the clean tech sector.

In Bellingham, Silfab, North America’s largest solar manufacturer, announced plans to invest at least $4 million to add more state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment to address growing demand for its American-made ultra-high-efficiency, premium monocrystalline photovoltaic (PV) modules. Commerce provided a $250,000 economic development grant to the Port of Bellingham to assist the expansion. An estimated 20–40 new jobs are expected when the newest wave of production ramps up.

In Moses Lake, Violet Power announced plans for the only vertically-integrated solar factory in the United States. Washington state’s clean, affordable hydropower and highly-skilled workforce are two prime reasons for this important addition to the state’s growing clean energy manufacturing ecosystem. The company says it will employ 1,000 workers, marking a new milestone in the U.S. solar energy supply chain.

Washington’s innovative industry partnerships also continue to pay off. Washington Maritime Blue, a strategic alliance launched by Gov. Jay Inslee through Commerce, continues to attract industry support to accelerate innovation, sustainability and equity in the state’s maritime industry. The initiative has drawn in over $6.5 million in programmatic support from federal, state and local dollars and partnerships. Maritime Blue’s Innovation Accelerator program has drawn incredible interest across the industry as a powerful tool to connect local companies to investors, mentors, corporate partners and more. So far, the Blue Accelerator cohort has attracted over $70 million in private capital investment as well as customer acquisition and access the mentorship. The success of the inaugural cohort this year has already led to the start of the accelerator’s “second wave” starting next month.

Breaking cycles of poverty

Today, 1.8 million Washingtonians — over 500,000 of them children — live in a household that struggles to make ends meet. The governor created the Poverty Reduction Work Group in 2017 and tasked Commerce, in partnership with the state departments of Social & Health Services and Employment Security, to lead a broad effort to identify strategies to break cycles of poverty. The effort sought to bring together numerous government agencies, philanthropic and nonprofit groups, and community-based organizations.

“In Washington state, more than a half million children live in families that struggle to make ends meet,” Inslee said. “This is unacceptable anywhere, but especially in a state with so much prosperity. We must do whatever we can to reduce poverty in Washington.” — Jay Inslee, Nov. 16, 2017

The PRWG’s 22-member steering committee reflects the demographic and geographic experiences of poverty. It includes diverse representation from urban, suburban, rural and tribal areas of the state and communities most affected by poverty such Indigenous, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, immigrants and refugees, and single parents.

PRWG is preparing to publish their 10-year poverty reduction strategy. It will reflect the lived experiences, knowledge and ideas of those most impacted by the many systems and sectors that perpetuate poverty. You can learn more about the PRWG and view the draft plan here.

Strengthening communities with historic new investments in behavioral health and early learning

Commerce manages tens of millions of dollars in state funds for community facilities each year. In 2020, important new investments helped strengthen communities all over the state, including projects that moved the dial forward on two central priorities: behavioral health and early learning.

Commerce awarded more than $70 million in grants to providers across the state to help thousands of people, including children and young adults, access a wide variety of behavioral care needs in the community. These investments support Gov. Inslee’s five-year plan to modernize and transform Washington’s mental health system, with the goal of ending civil patient placements at the state’s large hospitals by 2023 in favor of smaller, community-based facilities.

Also this year, Commerce partnered with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to invest over $21 million to preserve and expand early learning facilities. Access to quality childcare has been a persistent challenge for most working parents in good times, but it became even more crucial since the pandemic. These grants helped mitigate some of the child care closures and costs resulting from COVID-19 while also continuing the state’s efforts to ensure all families can find affordable, quality options when and where they need them.

“This has been an extraordinary and unprecedented year. As an agency immersed in the work of strengthening our economy and our communities, Commerce employees worked shoulder-to-shoulder with frontline communities and businesses to figure out how to help those who needed it most. Even as we pivoted so much of our energy to the pandemic response, though, our teams still made progress on priorities like broadband and clean energy. Commerce has always prided itself on being nimble and creative, and those attributes shined bright this year. We continue to stand ready to support our communities during whatever the new year brings.” — Lisa Brown, Commerce director

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Washington State Department of Commerce official news and information. Our mission is to strengthen communities in our state.

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