An Innovation Agenda for All Communities

I’m blessed to be from the Olympic Peninsula.    The combination of natural beauty, can-do spirit, and strong sense of community have garnered national attention as a great place to live and raise a family.  Seven decades ago those factors – and the promise of economic opportunity – attracted my family to the area.

But folks in our region have a palpable sense of economic concern. While out in the District this August, wherever I went – county fairs, community festivals or the grocery store – people expressed anxiety to me about job losses – and potential changes at some of our large employers. I heard from a young dad in Port Angeles who talked to me about his concerns for where the community is going economically. 

This concern certainly isn’t new.  Graduating from PA High School in 1992, I watched businesses close down.  It became harder for the next generation to experience what I did growing up in such a special place.

That said, in PA I also learned the adage that it’s better to organize than to agonize.

With that in mind, I recently brought more than a dozen leaders to the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Sequim to talk about how to support their efforts and grow new economic opportunities.  

The good news? There are amazing things happening in our region.

Take Peninsula Community College President Luke Robins. Luke discussed how the federal government could unleash new educational opportunities on the Olympic Peninsula that could open the door to new industries.

We heard from a school district leader who noted the value of career and technical education – and how reforms could help restore vocational training opportunities that could lead to good jobs.

We heard from leaders from the Composite Recycling Technology Center regarding opportunities for the peninsula to become a hub for new composite technologies.

And local economic development leaders highlighted the need for broadband access and discussed the push toward cross-laminated timber as an example of how our region can drive innovation and new jobs. 

Every local leader at the table had his or her oar in the water, trying to solve problems and move things forward.  Overall, the meeting highlighted that the can-do attitude of our community is alive and well.  It also made the clear the federal government can and should be a partner.

That’s why I’m working with some of my colleagues in Congress to develop a new Innovation Agenda, focused on building America’s competitive edge.  As we do so, I’m conscious of two things.

First, our country has work to do to grow jobs and opportunities.

When I worked in economic development, a sign in my office proclaimed: “we are competing with everyone, everywhere, every day, forever.” In 2016, our competitors are not waiting for us.  

But America’s investments in research and development as a percentage of GDP are at pre-Sputnik levels.  Too often, technological advances are happening in other places – not here.

Second, in considering innovation, Congress should not just focus on Silicon Valley or even South Lake Union. It should target economic development at communities like ours too.

At the lab discussion in Sequim, Russell Wilson’s voice rang in my head saying, “Why not us?” New innovations and jobs can happen in our neck of the woods.

So as we develop this innovation agenda, I’ll be pushing for greater attention to rural communities.

Let’s make high speed broadband a reality so rural communities can overcome geographic remoteness. Technology can be a vital tool in educating a young person or helping an entrepreneur start a business. 

Let’s help communities leverage our assets – including our proximity to the national parks and national forests. The federal government could seed a community innovation program to help regions like ours lead the way on salmon recovery, composite technology, and collaborative approaches to managing our forests. 

Let’s drive greater connections between our national labs and private industry.

Let’s ensure that our schools and community colleges – and our students – get the resources they need to be part of the 21st Century economy.

Let’s pursue policies like the Timber Innovation Act, to help move forward the development of advanced wood products like cross-laminated timber, opening up new markets by providing research, assistance, and incentives for using these innovative, green products.

There are no silver bullets here.  But by building an action plan to drive innovation that includes all of America, we can make a difference. And we can make progress in ensuring that our top export won’t be our young people.