Packwood Flea Market

Mount Rainier is seen in the backdrop as visitors mingle around vendors at the flea market in May, 2018 in downtown Packwood.

The recent openings of a brewery and tattoo parlor in Packwood are promising signs of the community’s growth — but many residents see challenges to further development unless Packwood can connect to the proposed sewer infrastructure that’s long been discussed in the area.

“It’s big for the downtown business corridor,” said Hal Blanton, owner of Blanton’s Market and a booster of plans to bring sewer service to Packwood. “It’s real difficult for a business to be able to operate without a sewer system. Land gets to be a problem — in order to put in a septic system, it takes an awful lot of property.”

Many feel that squeeze has hampered business in downtown Packwood. There’s little land left available for prospective business owners to put in septic systems, and the lack of sewer puts limitations on businesses with no septic connection. Maree Lerchen, a real estate broker and longtime advocate for sewer service in Packwood, noted that the lack of infrastructure has prevented any laundromats or car washes from opening in town.

With that in mind, the Lewis  Economic Development Council is asking the Legislature for around $5 million to fund construction of a sewer system in Packwood. 

“There’s not enough septic capacity,” said EDC executive director Matt Matayoshi. “For new development, it makes it challenging. We’re just talking about taking care of what’s existing and making an opportunity for growth.”

Matayoshi noted that some businesses in Packwood rely on portable restrooms outside — not ideal in a community that lives on travel and tourism. 

“It’s as simple as being able to use the bathroom,” he said. 

Lerchen added that some restaurants must limit capacity to meet the infrastructure restrictions, and some use disposable dishes because they can’t have dishwashers.

“The options for new businesses would be dramatically improved,” she said. “We would be able to fill the empty buildings that we have now as well as construct new businesses.”

Adding a sewer system won’t just be good for business, Lerchen added. Many people work seasonal jobs nearby at Mount Rainier National Park or the White Pass Ski Area, but Packwood lacks the affordable housing to accommodate them. 

“Sewers in the downtown area would allow people to build some multi-family housing apartments, which would be wonderful to have those available,” she said.

The EDC pegs the cost for the project at about $5.3 million, though it’s asking the state for only $4.3 million of that cost. The organization’s proposal calls for the construction of a sanitary sewer system downtown, along with a wastewater treatment plant and drainfield. About $3.6 million would be needed for construction costs, with another $500,000 for design, as well as added costs for land acquisition and site preparation. 

The proposal document submitted to the Legislature notes that adding sewer service would allow land currently occupied by septic systems and drainfields to be used for new businesses. It would also allow “larger water use industries” to set up shop in town. Meanwhile, it could replace aging septic systems that pollute groundwater and the nearby Cowlitz River.

Lerchen said that the community has been exploring the possibility of sewer for close to 20 years, saying that downtown has been “stagnant” as a result of the infrastructure limitations. In all that time, she said she’s never seen so much support for the endeavor. 

“It’s definitely the farthest we’ve ever been,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve had any indication that we might be able to get some grant money from the Legislature, and that money will allow us to pursue some other avenues.”

She noted that with only a small base paying into the system, it would need to be an affordable system. While Water-Sewer District 3 is not directly involved in efforts to get the sewer system built, the district has agreed to assume responsibility for operations if it is constructed, Lerchen said. 

The proposed sewer system would serve the areas within Packwood’s zoned Limited Area of More Intensive Rural Development — essentially the downtown business core — and not the surrounding residential community.

“The downtown corridor, we’re just kind of stymied,” Blanton said. “In order to put something else in it’s difficult to have the kind of area needed for septic. … In a restaurant business, it’s just very difficult. The fact that — would (a business) want to come into a town that doesn’t have a sewer system?”

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