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As people move from big cities, Northwest rural communities see economic boost

 A woman with grey hair in a blue shirt and lots of turquoise jewlery sits at a table with a man in a red button down shirt, blue jeans, and a apron with horses and birds on it. They're sitting at a silver table. On the table are two wine bottles, a plate with cold cuts, a salad, some water glasses, and some other bowls. The wall behind them is bright red and has five cartoon paintings of cats drinking beer.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Markeeta Little Wolf and her husband Mike Hubbard come to American 35 every Saturday. Mike Hubbard has a pizza named after him, called Mr. Hubbard's Saturday.

During the pandemic lots of people relocated from big cities to small, rural places. In Waitsburg, Wash., some say that's boosted the economy.

About 1,200 people live in Waitsburg – a city surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, a half hour from Walla Walla. Markeeta Little Wolf said it has a charm like no other place she’s lived.

“There's chickens everywhere. There's sheep. There’s cows, you know, livestock,” Little Wolf said.

 A woman in a yellow shirt with maroon stars on it sits on a grey sidewalk. She is holding a grey and white camera. In the middle of the street, a red tractor and a yellow car are driving past. There is an American flag in the left hand corner of the photo. In the background, there are tan and white buildings.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Lane Gwinn, publisher of The (Waitsburg) Times, takes photos during the annual Waitsburg Celebration Days parade.

Little Wolf was mayor from 2007 to 2010. For a long time, she said, the idea of new residents coming from big cities did not sound good.

“I wanted to put a moat around Waitsburg with a drawbridge, don’t let them come in. They’re going to ruin the place – that didn't happen,” she said. “The people that have come from Seattle or Los Angeles have come in and they've said, ‘Wow, this is something that we need to preserve.’”

It’s not clear exactly how many people moved to Waitsburg during the pandemic. But business leaders said it’s been enough to spark a lot of new activity on Main Street.

Lane Gwinn publishes the local newspaper, The (Waitsburg) Times. She also owns a coffee shop downtown.

“I had keys to most of the empty buildings. ‘Want to see a building? Want to buy it?’ They’d come to the coffee shop (and say) ‘What a great town.’ (I’d say,) ‘You want to see a building?’ All of a sudden, it just shifted,” Gwinn said.

Part of that shift is American 35, a new pizza place. Owners Tom and Judy Bennett moved from Portland during the pandemic.

“We're finding more sincere and genuine friendships with people here than we ever did living in the city. Because no one's really got the time in the city. There are too many distractions,” Tom Bennett said.

He learned to make wood-fired pizzas while visiting a tiny Italian village – a far cry from his former marketing career. But, it made sense in Waitsburg, the couple said.

“We found our peace out here. It just feels like a place where you can take a deep breath, and it's okay,” Judy Bennett said.

 A man in a blue shirt that says "American 35" on it stands holding a pizza with brown fig sauce on it. He is standing in front of a yellow sign that says "Pizza" and a silver shelf with three piles of white plates and three pizza cutting tools on it.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Tom Bennett, who co-owns American 35 with his wife, Judy, moved to Waitsburg from Portland. The couple opened up a new pizza eatery in town about a year ago.

Judy Bennett is also the president of the Waitsburg Commercial Club, a local business group. In addition to her pizza shop there's also more restaurants, a new gift store and new hotel in town.

Matt Wagner, chief program officer for Main Street America, a group that pushes for revitalizing downtowns, said as people around the country moved from large cities to small towns in recent years, they brought money with them – and what he calls “an incredible rise of entrepreneurship.”

“We certainly saw some of the greatest growth in the history of the U.S., in terms of the rate and the pace of new business formation,” Wagner said.

And that’s important for rural communities, which have been losing aging populations. That can lead to fewer hospitals, schools and banks in town, he said.

“To have successful small towns that are viable is certainly important from an economic perspective and also in terms of supporting the people that live there,” Wagner said.

Inflation has squeezed businesses across the U.S. But at the same time, Wagner says, rural communities have rallied around their local shops.

In Waitsburg, that includes Gloria Wilson’s woodworking shop, just down the road from the pizza place. She said she plans to open once she finishes renovating the storefront.

Wilson said it feels like the city is coming to life.

 Three people in tan cowboy hats sit in blue folding chairs. They are wearing grey T-shirts. They are sitting on a sidewalk. In the middle of the street, a woman in a red cowboy outfit is riding a grey horse. A building behind her has a white and black sign that says, "Waitsburg."
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
A crowd gathered in downtown Waitsburg on May 20 to watch the Waitsburg Celebration Days parade.

“I feel like there's a whole different energy. Change is inevitable, or you don't last,” she said.

Former Mayor Markeeta Little Wolf said she’s seen the city blossom with the arrival of new businesses, only to wither once those businesses shut down or leave. She said she hopes this new wave will last.

“You can walk up and down Main Street, you can look into windows. There's things to see, grab a cup of coffee, have a drink or two or three. And there's things to do,” Little Wolf said.

Little Wolf goes to American 35 every weekend with her husband, Mike Hubbard, a local attorney who grew up here. They come enough that Hubbard even has a pizza named after him – Mr. Hubbard’s Saturday. It’s piles and piles of sliced meatballs and sausage.

“You can put it in perspective because my father has the Snake River bridge named after him. Hubbard Bridge. Yeah, so I just have a pizza,” Hubbard joked.

What’s happening in Waitsburg now, is a “renaissance,” he said. He said he’ll keep supporting the shops on Main Street as the city continues to bounce back.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.