Officials should look beyond housing for Yelm’s 640 acres



How best to utilize the 640 acres, about the area of Central Park in New York City, that Yelm recently acquired after a business improvement commitment was unfulfilled? It gives Yelm an opportunity to look beyond the option of extending our bedroom community footprint and toward ideas that bring long-range economic vitality and social cohesion to the area. 

How about a pool or swimming center? Opportunities abound to utilize this area as a regional destination space. Opportunities that could include hiking/walking trails, equestrian trails, mountain bike trails and/or sports facilities for young and old that have the potential to draw visitors from the local region and take advantage of Washington’s existing interlocal cooperation. 

This type of investment could bring day-users to Yelm, which in turn could generate revenue via spending at local restaurants, retail stores, gas, motel facilities as well as recreation fees. That spending has a powerful multiplier effect — i.e., ripple effect of dollars respent — within the local economy, but unlike housing, does not require the added local investment in infrastructure and schools that are associated with bringing new residents. 

Furthermore, this opportunity not only takes advantage of serving a regional day-use need for recreation but has the potential for Yelm to step into a role as “A Gateway to Mount Rainier National Park.”

Rather than thinking about these “passing-through” travelers as just a weekend-traffic issue, how can Yelm capitalize on this intrusion?

We can borrow from examples such as Enumclaw, which has regenerated its downtown by strategically transforming it to a destination and welcoming respite to travelers to and from Mount Rainier.

Not benefiting from these “through” travelers stopping in Yelm, particularly as Mount Rainier National Park faces surging popularity and in 2024 became one of a fraction of the national parks requiring reserved time entries, seems shortsighted.

Also, looking toward educational partnerships, Yelm has the potential to serve a larger role as a community college or vocational satellite for the growing population within the east side of the Thurston County, the opportunity to serve immediate needs through development and employment, as well as a very strategic long-term investment in the people who will contribute to this economy for foreseeable decades.   

Lastly, don’t overlook emerging options, such as renewable energy, i.e. solar farms, which have demonstrated themselves to be successful revenue generators for local governments willing to think outside the box. 

These suggestions don’t go in depth enough to evaluate zoning, tax structure and logistical feasibility but hopefully present ideas that encourage Yelm to think broadly about what options this unique parcel of land presents. Yelm, and the contractors it has hired, should be thoughtful in the next steps to evaluate options. Utilize an input-output analysis to identify industry opportunities and their associated multiplier effects and ensure a cost-benefit analysis looks beyond the short-term and takes into account the long run implications of each option presented. 

Other points to consider: 

  • The planned community Yelm is talking about for this 640 acres may have up to 6,000 homes on it, or two cars per home, an additional 12,000 cars a day on a two-lane road between Yelm and Rainier. What are they thinking?
  • Additionally, the Yelm school district just laid off 30% of the school district teaching staff and has a $15 million budget shortfall with two failed levy votes. One of the first things people look at when purchasing a house is the quality of the schools.
  • How does the quality of life for the current residents of Yelm and surrounding area improve with 6,000 additional homes and no infrastructure to support it?

Yelm has an opportunity to effectively provide the educational, recreational and leisure needs of the region while meeting its immediate revenue needs. That option does not have to rely on Yelm focusing on frontloaded benefits from housing that takes spending to Olympia, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Tacoma. Rather, there are options to make Yelm viable as a community for this community and the generations that will call it home for years to come.    

Laura Bagnall, Melissa Braybrooks and Paul Villena