PORT ORCHARD — Economic changes in our community and nation — defined by economists as being “disruptive” to the marketplace in good ways and bad — are keeping 6th District Rep. Derek Kilmer up at night as he ponders how his mostly rural, extreme western Washington district can keep pace with a changing global environment.
Kilmer shared some of his concerns March 21 with merchant members of the Port Orchard Bay Street Association, who are primarily small business owners in the city’s downtown business area. The Democrat told the members at Pinch Cafe, inside Josephine’s Mercantile, that disruptive change often is a harbinger of positive economic movement that follows technological advances, leading to a shift in consumer habits.
For instance, Kilmer said, his first job as a young man in Port Angeles was working at Westside Video.
“For the younger people here, we used to have video stores,” Kilmer joked with the audience. “It bums me out that the term ‘Be Kind, Please Rewind’ no longer has meaning. Now we have Netflix and on-demand movies.”
A similar shift happened that has nearly eliminated photo stores where consumers would purchase Kodak film and other camera supplies.
“Kodak at one time in this country had 160,000 employees,” he noted. “Now it employs
4 percent of that number because we all have cameras on our phones.”
But the benefits from disruptive economic change, while not as obvious as job losses, are life-changing, Kilmer said.
“When I’m in Washington, D.C., it means I can Facetime with my daughters on the iPad. When my wife had a brain aneurysm, medical science has advanced to the point where they could fix her — that’s amazing. It means we have more access to more content and information, and the ability to collaborate through technology in ways that we never even dreamed of.”
What’s making Kilmer lose sleep, though, he said, is that the benefits of recent economic change and its resulting pain have not been felt in the same way throughout the nation. He cited statistics from the think tank Economic Innovation Group, which created a distressed community index with data gathered from every zip code in America, including measurements of employment and unemployment, housing values, wage and salary information and the numbers of those living below the poverty line.
Economic prosperity is uneven
What the think tank has concluded from those statistics is that economic prosperity has been unevenly spread across the nation.
“Since 2011, 57 percent of the job creation and 50 percent of the new business startups have been in the 20 percent of the zip codes that were already the most prosperous,” he said. “They found that in the 20 percent [of zip code locations] that were least prosperous, not only were they behind where they were in 2011, they are behind where they were in 2000.
“You’re seeing the bifurcation of economic opportunity in our country. If you overlay those stats on a map, it looks a lot like the district I represent. A lot of the areas that are struggling economically are in my district. That absolutely drives what I work on and how I work on it.”
Kilmer said his congressional office in the district and on Capitol Hill is on a mission to seek more economic opportunity in the 6th District.
The glaring inequities are no more noticeable than with the 11 Native American tribes that reside in the district. Kilmer said he spoke with a tribal leader last year, who bemoaned that despite seeing all of his high school seniors graduate, a state requirement that they take entrance exams on the internet was a nonstarter for the young students hoping to advance to college or trade school.
The reason? “We don’t have high-speed internet,” Kilmer was told.
The tribal leader said the students took part in a sample test in which they answered 10 test questions, then clicked to turn the page. With stopwatch in hand, they discovered it took the tribe’s outdated internet connection one minute and 44 seconds to transition to the next page. As a result, Kilmer said, the high schoolers will be bused to another school in a neighboring town with access to broadband service in order to take the next test.
The congressman said he and other legislators have introduced a bill — the Broadband for All Act — that would have the federal government step up to fund a solution to what Kilmer calls “the last mile problem” to connect high-speed service to similarly poorly served communities.
“This goes beyond whether you can watch the latest episode of ‘Stranger Things,’” Kilmer said. “Increasingly, the internet is like what rural electrification was a century ago” for underserved regions of the country.
Kilmer also outlined other issues affecting the district that he and his staff are working to address: workforce development, lowering the cost of health care for small businesses, infrastructure needs — including transportation through Gorst — and a massive project destined to modernize the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and other shipyards around the country.
“It’s going to have a very significant effort here in Kitsap County,” he said of the proposed work. “Over the next 20 years, they’re expecting literally billions — with a ‘b’ — of dollars in investment in our public shipyard. As the Navy invests in our communities, there’s a desire to have those dollars flow to local businesses.”
‘Too much bickering’
While these issues and their proposed solutions have captured Kilmer’s attention, he admitted the extremely partisan climate on Capitol Hill and throughout the nation has hamstrung the ability for lawmakers to accomplish anything of substance.
“There’s way too much partisan bickering and not enough focus on making progress for the American people,” he said. “That absolutely influences how I approach this job … almost without exception, the bills I sponsor are bipartisan because I think it’s important to make the effort to work across the aisle.”
Kilmer co-chairs a congressional group called the Bipartisan Working Group, a group of a dozen Democrats and a dozen Republicans that meets every week for breakfast. The congressman was honored earlier this month with the Legislative Action Award given by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a national think tank working to find consensus on key challenges facing the nation.