New facility brings commercial kitchen, fish processing center


December 24, 2020

Diana Zimmerman

A new structure at Wahkiakum High School, paid for with grant funding provided by the Wahkiakum Marine Resources Council, will benefit local students and commercial fishermen. The two room building provides a commercial kitchen on one side, a first at the high school, and a fish processing center on the other. A separate $43,000 Healthy Kids grant paid for all the equipment, including new sinks, and a commercial grade dishwasher seen here. 2 The fish processing center is almost ready to go, but is currently being used to store items for a food program, which is providing sustenance to local kids and families who are struggling with food insecurity right now. 3 & 4 Commercial grade stove and ovens are a big improvement over hot plates, which were used in the past, according to Superintendent Brent Freeman.

The FISH Center at Wahkiakum High School was finally completed this week, with the installation of a fire alarm system. The news is a bit anticlimactic, really, if one considers the whole story, because this has been a long time coming.

How to tell you what this building means? This square, concrete block building, tucked without fashion into a location only made suitable because of easy access to water, sewer, and electricity.

But this isn't about form. This is about function.

The dual purpose, two room building is providing a much needed modern commercial kitchen for the high school on one side, and a fish processing center for local commercial fishermen on the other.

"To me this a great story of partnership," Superintendent Brent Freeman commented.

It is also a story of perseverance, creativity, flexibility, and hope. And knowing when and when not to settle.

Back in 2013, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife adopted a plan, commonly referred to as the Kitzhaber Plan. Put simply, it reduced the work that commercial fishermen could do on the Columbia River, Carrie Backman reminded me earlier this year. It threatened a livelihood that had provided for families in Wahkiakum County for generations.

Backman is the Director of the Wahkiakum County Washington State University Extension Office. She was and is the coordinator for the Wahkiakum Marine Resources Committee (MRC), an organization that allows community members to give feedback on marine and fishery policies. There are MRCs in every county along the coast.

"We were talking about how [the Kitzhaber Plan] was going to play out in our community and what we could do to help with the ramifications of that," she said. "At the same time, the MRCs were coming together and asking the legislature to start investing more money in the coast for salmon habitat restoration. They were seeing a lot of dollars go for Puget Sound habitat restoration and salmon but not a lot for the coast. The coast is a place that is most impacted by policies like this. We rely on fisheries as an economic driver, I think, more than most counties."

They didn't just talk. Backman sat down with other MRC members like her husband Mike Backman, Kayrene Gilbertsen, Carol Ervest, Terry Ostling and Mike Clark, and the group wrote a proposal for funding through a Washington Coast Restoration and Resiliency Initiative, which was started when all the MRCs got together with the tribes and other groups like the Nature Conservancy to ask the legislature to start investing more money out here, Backman said.

"Wahkiakum County asked for money to help fishermen who, even though they weren't going to get to fish very much, if they did choose to continue fishing, they could keep more of that dollar in their pocket," Backman said. "Instead of having to sell it all wholesale, for whatever the wholesale buyer decides that price is going to be, they would have some authority, or agency in themselves to demand a higher price. They could do that by icing the fish or go as far as filleting the fish and selling it themselves locally. Maybe they might want to sell it in the market or start selling direct to customers."

"Maybe their share of the harvest might be much reduced, but maybe their share of the money would be more," Backman continued. "That was the thought back then."

Their proposal received a high ranking and won full funding.

It was good news, but the fishermen were just learning that their fishing time on the Columbia was being drastically reduced, faster than expected.

"We knew it was coming, but it was like the carpet was pulled out," Backman said. "Our fishermen were really not sure if they could continue fishing at all."

Some weren't ready to give it up, and because they were interested in the notion of adding value to their product, the desire for some kind of facility for fish processing remained.

"It was still feasible," Backman said, "but the new more limited hours on the river made it harder to pencil out as far as consistent use. It wouldn't pay to keep the lights on."

With the project fully funded in 2016, the MRC took a year to interview fishermen and create a business plan for the facility.

"I didn't want to invest in something even if some people feel like it's free money," Backman said. "It doesn't feel right to me. I'd sooner give it back than waste it."

She came to the conclusion that the project wouldn't work as it stood. She turned her focus to providing "top notch" classes for the fishermen. Things like fish marketing, fish smoking, HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) training to mitigate for any possible food borne illness.

And she started spending more time at the Wahkiakum School District, in their garden and in the greenhouse, talking to Freeman, the Vocational/Agriculture teacher Kyle Hurley, and Robin Westphall, who is on the school board, and is active in the garden.

A new idea began to formulate in Backman's mind after a conversation with Freeman.

"Not only are they growing all this stuff at the school, but they want to teach kids how to process it into a salable retail product," Backman said.

She realized that she might be able to solve two problems at once, marrying the fishermen's need for intermittent facility use with the school's long term need for a kitchen. Even better, a commercial kitchen, which could be used for educational purposes.

She spoke to the MRC's grant manager at Washington State's Recreation and Conservation Office who had administered the WCRRI funding allocated by the state's legislature.

"We have the most amazing grant manager there," Backman said. "Alice Rubin totally gets what it's like to work in a rural place where you are trying to take these disparate pieces and make something work out of them. She could relate to this and was patient with us. She saw that this could be part of something bigger."

"Without her, it would not have worked," Backman added. "That is a great example of when a state agency is a good partner."

After getting the okay from the RCO, Backman reached out to Wahkiakum County Commissioners and the WSD school board. Both parties were agreeable to the new proposal.

Backman praised Freeman for getting all the necessary stakeholders involved as they moved forward, including Wahkiakum Health and Human Services, and Wahkiakum PUD.

"All the folks that we needed to make sure this was a good, legal, working facility, to advise us and make this plan work," she said.

Including Dan Bigelow, the prosecuting attorney.

"He made sure I was following the public bid process, and kept me educated on how that works," Backman said. "He's an awesome teacher."

Every long story needs an intermission, and this one has several.

They put the project out for bid and were met with silence.

They put it out for bid again. Someone asked for more than $300,000 to complete the project, well over the $240,000 grant they had received.

"We were about to hang up our hats," Backman said. "It was hard, you could see the promise in it, but not figure out how to make it pencil."

Freeman is a master at finding creative ways to solve problems, and he began to work at this one, wondering if the price might come down to a more manageable number if the school district tackled portions of the project themselves.

His thinking added even more value, when it became a learning opportunity for their students, many of whom are turning to trades after high school.

"They found things they could do themselves like painting, excavating, and laying rock," Backman said.

The project also found a contractor with a complementary philosophy, Jerry Davenport of Northwest Legacy.

"It all came together," Backman said. "We got an awesome contractor in the amount that we could pay, $246,000. He came in and was ready and willing and excited to work with the kids. It was cool to have a business that valued teaching kids these trades."

"How amazing our community is to make something like this happen," she added. "It didn't happen in a vacuum. We are able to do this because of partnerships with the state and partnerships with private business. We want to feel like we can go it on our own, but we can't. This is a good example of that. We can have positive productive relationships with people who want to help us."

Not to be forgotten are Allen Bennett, who kept a lot of moving parts moving, Backman said, and Donna Westlind, who made sure bills were paid. And Paul Lawrence, who helped in so many ways.

"No county dollars went into this project, no school district dollars," Backman said. "It was all grant dollars and hard work."

Another intermission was created by covid-19, but the final work at the new FISH Center is complete. Freeman had some of his own thoughts as he showed me around the building, and shared a little more about how he'd found ways to cut down on costs.

"My hat is off to Carrie Backman for staying with the grant, because she had to go back and convince the grantor that this was a reasonable project," he said. "The money technically ran out a year ago July. Talk about thinking outside the box. We didn't have a single bid on it. People would come out and say that is way too big of a project and not enough money."

Freeman said that the new building had been valued at about $1.1 million, and talked about all the ways they were able to save money during construction.

"An architect, Craig Collins, looked at designing a cost saving building and donated some of his fees, and we found a construction management company, Northwest Legacy, that was really willing to go to bat for us and not build for profit," Freeman said. "I'm sure they didn't make a penny on this."

The building had been designed to be a wood frame building, but the construction management company donated bricks left over from a large job they had just completed. They paid a mason to come out and students got hands on lessons in masonry work.

"We put a lot of sweat equity into this," Freeman said. "That's the way we were able to cut the costs down. We had students that helped with most of the phases of this."

The school district received a $43,000 Healthy Kids grant to pay for equipment, like the commercial range, ovens, refrigerators, sinks, and dishwasher, as well as a walk in freezer. They also have a large ice machine for the fish processing center, and a vacuum packer.

Thanks to some generous community members, they also have a couple washers and dryers.

Commercial fishermen are expected now and again, and will be able to use the center for a fee, but the new space has created so much possibility for Wahkiakum students.

"Post covid, we hope to take things out of the garden and start using the commercial kitchen for healthy living, healthy snacks, and food production," Freeman said. "We can partner with the 4-H club. Carrie Backman has taught canning classes and more. They had to use hot plates in the past, but we have a commercial stove now, and the space to spread out."

There had been plans to have a food science class through WSU, but it was delayed when their contact has moved out of state.

"We'll find another way to connect," Freeman said.

Hunting is a favored pastime of many local students, and they will be able to use the fish processing center to learn how to process game. There is potential for a life skills class, where students can learn how to wash clothes, and cook.

"It's the right type of facility," Freeman said. "I think it's important we let kids know what right is. You just don't have to settle. There is a time in life we all settle. And we all have to make choices about what we settle for. But we want that to be a choice. You shouldn't go through life settling for everything. Let them know we work hard and plan, and you make the right type of choices, and you don't make compromises that are below standard."


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