Sen. Cantwell Visits Chehalis, Discusses Economic Development and STEM Education

By:  Katie Hayes
Source: The Daily Chronicle

This week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell visited Chehalis and met with local leaders to discuss economic development opportunities in Lewis County. 

This discussion took place after President Donald Trump signed the American Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 into law on Oct. 23. In addition to a discussion at the Port of Chehalis — with representatives from the port, Chehalis School District, various parts of Lewis County government and Lewis Economic Development Council — Cantwell toured Chehalis with the group. 

Topics ranged from port projects, to flood mitigation to W.F. West High School’s STEM program. Cantwell seemed particularly interested in the Chehalis School District’s new STEM wing, and recommended the district pilot a new program in which school districts require a year of coding. 

Chehalis School District Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Bissett discussed the district’s new STEM wing. She also noted a W.F. West student who created a test strip for Zika virus and won fourth place in biomedical engineering at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. 

“You need to put that on a banner,” Cantwell said. “... You have to promote this. You’re doing something other people aren’t doing. You’ve built infrastructure so your students can thrive in STEM.” 

Cantwell then referenced legislation she introduced that became law this summer, which will help high schools establish or expand computer coding education programs. The legislation is meant to incentivize states that allow high school students to take a coding class —rather than a mathematics, science or foreign language class — to fulfill graduation requirements, according to Cantwell’s website. 

“There are a lot of people who are trying to do STEM work in a broad way, I would say,” said Cantwell after the tour. “But the fact that they put so much resource into a facility at the school that has students excelling — there is something to learn from that. I wanted to see if they might be able to pioneer something that is important for the nation, which is to get more schools to think about STEM almost as a language requirement that everybody should be exposed to. We’ll work with them and see what should be done.” 

Cantwell noted the prestige of placing in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair during the meeting, and said she attended the event several years ago. 

“I am so impressed that the school has made STEM a priority, and built a STEM lab and that they have students that are competing on a nationwide basis — winning recognition for the type of science work they are doing,” said Cantwell after the tour. “The fact that Lewis County is making such a commitment to STEM speaks volumes about the community.” 

During the discussion, Port of Chehalis CEO Randy Mueller outlined some of the port’s projects, including the potential purchase of two former Chehalis elementary schools, the Interstate-5 fiber project and the 105 McBride Court site that will potentially house multiple smaller businesses.

“I think that’s a good strategy,” said Cantwell of the fiber project. “... You usually have to find someone else to make that last mile connection.” 

Cantwell asked how the port intended to repurpose the schools, but Mueller said it was too early to tell. Annalee Tobey, who is the executive director of the Chehalis Community Renaissance Team, said she has seen a lot of demand for space to house small businesses in the area. 

Mueller noted the port has been at maximum capacity for nearly three years. He said that the port has been turning away smaller businesses, with two to five employees. He then noted that the port is constructing a building at 105 McBride Court, with the intention that the space can be divided into areas for smaller businesses. 

The group concluded Cantwell’s visit with a tour of the Port of Chehalis and downtown Chehalis. 

The first tour stop was Maurin Road Industrial Site 1 — a shovel ready site that is available for lease or purchase. Mueller said both a Japanese company and a Spanish company have expressed interest in the site. The other stops were the two new Chehalis Elementary Schools, W.F. West High School, R.E. Bennett Elementary School and Chehalis Coworks. 

“(What stood out to me is) how much people are working together as a community — the school district, the commissioners, the port,” Cantwell said. “Everybody (is) trying to promote Lewis County in lots of different ways.”