Moses Lake's sweet years end

MOSES LAKE — Sugar turns the desert dirt under Frank Bell's boots as white as snow.

It settles on his hard hat and swirls like fog around the crew pumping the last 17 million pounds out of the concrete silos of the Pacific Northwest Sugar Co., which closed this spring after four money-losing years.

The sugar is bound for Idaho.

The future is less certain for Bell, a plant electrician and one of the last guys left on the company's payroll.

"There is still hope for this place," he said. "There is a lot of good equipment left."

These aren't sweet days for Bell or the Central Washington town of about 15,000 that he has called home for the past decade.

Moses Lake has fashioned the kind of diverse economy that most rural towns dream of. It has cheap power, abundant water, lush farms, a sprawling airport, Interstate 90 and an industrial base that produces everything from air bags to McDonald's French fries.

But this desert town, two hundred miles and a world away from Puget Sound, has felt the recession as hard as anyplace.

The region lost nearly 400 factory jobs in the last year as plants closed, cut back or retooled. More and more empty storefronts are appearing downtown. Even agriculture, the longtime economic backbone, has struggled recently.

"We thought we might breeze through this downturn, but it looks like it finally caught up to us," said Albert Anderson, who is in charge of drumming up business for the Port of Moses Lake.

Moses Lake is an economy where contrasts are easy to find but an identity remains elusive.

Irrigation has turned a flat desert into a promised land for farming. Fields of potatoes grow a spud's throw from a high-tech plant that turns sand into silicon. A generation of Japan Airlines pilots have learned to fly 747s over land farmed by Japanese Americans who spent World War II in internment camps.

Sixty-four years after Moses Lake was founded, it is still trying to figure out just where its future lies.

Fields? Factories? Fast food? Or maybe even the far reaches of space?

These days, the town is betting on all of them.

But lately, it seems even good news has been tempered by bad. The community added about 500 new jobs over the last year but mostly in retail and services, not in the higher-paying factory jobs that can help catapult a high-school grad into the middle class. The layoffs at factories seem to have had a more important effect, delivering a blow to the town's psyche as much as its economy.

State economists are cautiously optimistic about Moses Lake. But if better times are coming, Jaime Zavala hasn't seen them from behind the Formica countertop of El Charro restaurant.

Empty at lunchtime

The downtown diner has been a fixture of Moses Lake since Zavala's father opened it 35 years ago. But the place is nearly empty at lunchtime.

"Everyone around here is singing the same tune: Times are tough right now," Zavala said.

Families that used to eat at the restaurant two or three times a week now stop by twice a month. The beer-truck driver nods his head as Zavala explains that if it weren't for his low overhead and loyal customers, he might have gone out of business — like the next-door tavern.

"In a small community, when you hear about layoffs, people really start thinking, should I spend that extra dollar," he said. "And everyone around here knows someone who is laid off."

The closing of the sugar-beet plant this spring was one of the biggest disappointments for leaders of Moses Lake, and not only because of the 100 permanent and 300 seasonal jobs that were lost.

When Pacific Northwest Sugar opened in 1998, the company hoped to restore the town's lost honor as home to the world's largest sugary refinery. Until it went out of business in 1978, U & I Sugar processed 1.5 million tons of sugar beets a year. But equipment problems at the plant and low sugar prices dashed Pacific Sugar's dream, and local officials say talk of reopening again is wishful thinking.

Worse still was news that the Advanced Silicon Materials plant might also close. ASiMI, a subsidiary of Japan's Komatsu Electronics, employed 350 people producing high-quality silicon for computer chips.

The bursting of the Internet bubble didn't just hit the high-tech economies in Seattle and San Francisco. The slump in computer sales forced ASiMI to consolidate production at its Butte, Mont., plant.

Now the fate of the remaining 250 workers at the factory, which purifies black silicon sand by turning it first into a gas and then re-solidifying it into dense rods, hinges on whether the company can work out a deal to provide lower-quality silicon for a Norwegian producer of solar cells by this fall.

No one that foolish

"In the heyday, everything was bet on the come: telecom, computers, the Internet — all of it required chips and all of this was forecast to keep going up," said Michael Kerschen, the plant's president. "No one is foolish enough to think it will go as high again."

The soft-spoken, Kansas-born engineer moved to Moses Lake in 1987, taking the helm of a plant that was built by Union Carbide a few years before. When orders for the silicon rods slowed, the company saw it as an opportunity to build up inventory. When orders stopped altogether, it had to take more drastic measures.

"It was a full year before we laid anyone off," Kerschen said. "We hoped and prayed and we used a lot of cash to get over what we thought would be a short trough."

Agriculture, too, has suffered its own problems, which have spilled into the food-processing plants that employ more than 2,000 in and around Moses Lake.

Farmers reduced crops last year in anticipation of a drought that never materialized, forcing the town's biggest potato processor and private employer, the J.R. Simplot Co., to shut down its French-fry plant a month early when supply ran low.

Moses Lake has survived its share of bad times before, like the first time the sugar factory shut down in 1978 or when Mount St. Helens spewed ash on the town two years later, creating a mess that hobbled the town for more than a month.

It also survived the closing of Larson Air Force Base in 1965.

The military took away a big chunk of the local economy when it packed up its nuclear weapons and pulled out of town. Ever since, people like Albert Anderson have been trying to figure out how to turn the Moses Lake's Cold War surplus into an economic asset.

The sprawling Grant County International Airport has twice the acreage of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

One of its five runways — compared with Sea-Tac's two — is a 2.5-mile behemoth that is one of the longest in the country.

It has a new passenger terminal and air traffic control tower, and the former Air Force hangars still in use today were built to withstand a near-nuclear blast.

Planes land but don't stay

A constant stream of planes touches down and lifts off from the runways. But few of them ever stop here. Most of them come from McChord Air Force Base, which uses Moses Lake as a practice landing strip.

The airplane traffic outside is a contrast to the terminal, which is dark, cool and entirely empty between Big Sky Airlines flights.

Big Sky, with its seven daily flights west to Seattle and east to Spokane and Montana, took over the distinction as Moses Lake's only passenger air carrier after Horizon Air pulled out last year. Horizon complained that it couldn't turn a profit from the 27 passengers a day that flew out of the airport to Seattle, even though the route is federally subsidized under the Essential Air Services program.

The sheer size of the airport has led to some big ideas for its future.

Officials looked into building a bullet train to Seattle so flights could be diverted into Moses Lake, taking pressure off Sea-Tac. But that pipe dream never caught on.

Now they hope to construct a spaceport for the next generation of reusable launch vehicles to blast into orbit. A recent $150,000 state-funded study suggests it's not such a bad idea.

Anderson tosses his Cape Canaveral windbreaker in the back seat of the car before taking a visitor on a tour. The jacket is a memento of a visit to a town Moses Lake has set its sights on.

"These people aren't adverse to taking risks," Anderson said. "But the risk with that is that every once in a while you have something big that catches the headlines and people roll their eyes and say, 'Oh, another Moses Lake project.' "

Big dreams aside, the airport's successes have been on a more modest scale.

Japan Airlines has operated its heavy-jet training program out of one of the airport's huge hangars since 1968. Every few weeks a new team of pilots arrives to learn how to fly 747s over the green farms and brown desert that surround Moses Lake.

The airport's industrial park has had an even bigger impact on the economy. Cheap land, cheaper power and a nonunion labor pool has lured several plants here, which has meant hundreds of high-wage jobs.

Anderson drives past a former B-52 hangar now leased by Genie Industries. The Redmond company, which was recently bought by a Connecticut maker of construction, mining, shipping and maintenance equipment, started making its line of portable lifts here in 1999. About 170 people work at the plant, and local officials expect the new company, Terex, will continue with plans to expand the operation.

Anderson points out Chemi-Con Materials, a subsidiary of Japan's Nippon Chemi-Con, which employs 70 people making electrolytic aluminum foil used in the motors of electric cars.

At the end of one dusty road are two companies making propellant gases: General Dynamics and Inflation Systems. Most people in town call Inflation Systems by the name of the Japanese company that owns it: Takata.

About 370 employees make components for automobile airbags, working behind walls designed in some cases to lessen the damage of an accidental explosion by blowing outward. The company laid off about 100 workers in January, when it moved a production line to Mexico.

Joann Latin was one of those laid off. Six months later, she is still looking for a full-time job.

The 20-year-old single mother of two spent a recent afternoon with her friend Susiy Morski in the Moses Lake unemployment office, filling out forms packed inside cheerfully colored folders.

Asked where she has applied for work, Latin laughs:

"Where haven't I?"

'An important job'

She thought she had it made at Takata. Inspecting inflation systems for BMWs and Mercedes Benzes was challenging and important. And it paid good money, $11.50 an hour.

"It was an important job," she said. "If I messed up, it was someone else's life."

The layoff wasn't a surprise. Rumors had been circulating around the plant for weeks. But it was still a blow. Latin found the job market has all but dried up in Moses Lake.

It took three months of pounding the pavement to get a part-time job soliciting ads over the phone for the Columbia Basin Herald newspaper at $6.50 an hour. Her monthly income, even with help from state welfare programs, is $700, half of what she made at Takata.

"I've applied all over town, but I haven't gotten a call back. Not one," said Latin, who also holds a training certificate in nursing. "It was easier to find a job when I was in high school. You could get a job anywhere. But now they want a résumé at McDonald's."

Despite the layoffs, there are hopeful signs in Moses Lake. Plans are moving forward for opening a 40-million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant that would create hundreds of new manufacturing jobs.

Wal-Mart and Starbucks

The city has hired consultants to develop a plan to revitalize the downtown. Wal-Mart is set to expand its Moses Lake store.

Even Starbucks is building its first store near the freeway.

Which is not welcome news for Shane Ahmann, who opened the Caffee Meup espresso stand last year.

"I'm struggling," he says, leaning out the service window. It hasn't just been the drop in sales that followed Sept. 11, Ahmann says; the business taxes are killing him, too.

But after a long, slow winter, things are starting to pick up as the weather turns hot and more tourists and travelers stop by for a latte to go.

He has seen the town grow from three to 30 stop lights since he moved here in 1970. But Ahmann is not so sure he likes where things are heading now.

"In the 1970s, the economy was driven by the farm," he says, handing over a double Americano without sugar. "Now it is driven by me: fast food and fast service."

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or