Shannon Dininny, AP, July 28, 2007
The steady growth of the Ochoa family business mirrors the ascent of the region’s Hispanic community in recent years as Franklin County became the first majority-Hispanic county in the Pacific Northwest.
According to 2006 Census estimates, the county is nearly 57 percent Hispanic, up from 47 percent in 2000. Neighboring Adams County quickly followed suit at 52 percent.
Overall, Washington state’s Hispanic population grew by 28 percent from 2000 to 2006. That makes it the fastest-growing minority population in a state that borders not Mexico, but Canada.
Nowhere is that growth more evident than south-central Washington’s Franklin County, a rural, arid, sage-covered land east of the Columbia River. Irrigated fruit orchards and farm fields offer work for farm workers willing to venture north from California, Texas and Mexico, and the population center, Pasco, is expanding its food processing and retail sectors.
Pasco has always been considered the poorest and smallest of the Tri-Cities—the other two being Richland and Kennewick—built around weapons production and, later, environmental cleanup at the nearby Hanford nuclear reservation.
In 1978, Pasco’s population was about 15,000. More than 50,000 people live there now, and home construction is barely keeping pace with growth. In the early 1990s, 60 homes were built “in a good year,” said City Manager Gary Crutchfield. Since 2000, the number of new home permits has exceeded 600 each year, with a high of 1,032 in 2004.
Much of that growth has come from the Hispanic community. Mexican restaurants can be found on most every street in town, and Latino families own bakeries, travel agencies and countless businesses in between. The local library offers a bilingual story hour for children, and morning announcements at the community’s swelling high school are read in both English and Spanish.
“I look at our diversity as a strength, and I think that approach has really helped us tackle some difficult issues and be successful with them,” said Saundra Hill, superintendent of Pasco schools for the past five years.
But the bigger problem boils down to money, Hill said. Most of the tax base is residential, and it’s not enough to pay to educate all the children in all those new homes. Many people work on farms, some of them in neighboring counties.
“What would help us is a more industrial or commercial tax base,” she said. “It would hopefully not bring in as many young families, and it would lessen the burden on each taxpayer.”
The city built a wastewater treatment plant in 1995 to attract food processors that use vast amounts of water to wash vegetables, saving the companies the expense of building their own plants. Already, four of the six sites in the industrial center have been filled, offering about 1,000 new jobs for seasonal farm workers or their spouses.
Additional retail also is moving into the area, boosting its tax base.
In 1994, the year before the wastewater treatment plant was built, the city’s total assessed value was $385 million. It grew to $2 billion in 2007, Crutchfield said.
At the same time, crime rates have fallen dramatically, and emergency response times and public services, such as parks, have been drastically improved.
Ochoa has seen plenty of businesses come and go over the years, unwilling or unable to adapt to a busy season that lasts only as long as the migrant workers are in town: April to September.
Sales drop about 70 percent in the winter, she said.
“There’s a lot more competition. They all want a piece of the pie,” she said. “But if we divide the pie so much, eventually we all end up with only a section of a sliver.”
The Hispanic community also lacks representation in elected office, largely because the number of registered voters is low and Hispanic candidates rarely run for offices outside the school board.
Still, Crutchfield said friction in the community is fairly low.