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Providence St. Mary grows as third largest employer in the county behind FirstFruits Farms and Tyson Fresh Meats

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Job growth at Providence St. Mary Medical Center has propelled the health care operation to the third largest employer in Walla Walla County.

St. Mary gained 212 positions since 2015 to surpass the Washington State Penitentiary as the third largest employer, according to the latest list of largest employers from the Port of Walla Walla.

Apple growing, packing and shipping operation FirstFruits Farms, formerly known as Broetje Orchards, continues to anchor community employment in the No. 1 spot with 2,500 full- and part-time employees. That figure represents growth of 100 positions since the last time the list was released.

Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula also solidly maintains its historic position at No. 2. The company grew by 80 jobs over the last four years for a total of 1,460 employees, the list shows.

The list is compiled by the Port as a working document and is based on participation. Only one business in the Top 25 — Walmart at No. 14 — was placed using numbers from 2015. The rest were updated with answers on full- and part-time numbers.

For the sake of the list, a full-time employee is defined as one who averages 40 hours per week. All others are considered part-time, with exceptions of Walmart, which considers employees of 28 hours a week as full-time, and FirstFruits, which reports seasonal workers who work full-time from March to November as part-time.

The list helps identify employment sector diversity and movement for the county’s lead economic development agency.

Providence’s movement as a top employer comes after the closure two and half years ago of Walla Walla General Hospital and with expansion of services that include the opening of two Express Care clinics and development of the former General Hospital property into the Southgate Medical Park. That property includes the relocated Providence Urgent Care operation, as well as Imaging and Labs, among other services.

Since the publication of the last list for 2015, Providence has grown by 212 positions. Its employment increased from 650 full-time jobs to 948, and decreased part-time positions from 311 to 225.

The majority of the penitentiary jobs remain full-time positions, though the number overall decreased since 2015 from 1,089 to 1,080. The decrease was in part-time work from 59 positions to 12. Full-time positions climbed from 1,030 to 1,068.

Walla Walla School District rounded out the Top 5 with 19 more positions in the last four years at 833.

Whitman College and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs each moved up on the list to positions 6 and 7 from 8 and 10, respectively.

Packaging Corporation of America fell from No. 7 to No. 9 with a decrease of 144 employees, according to the data.

Making a large jump was the city of Walla Walla, from position 15 in 2015 to 10 this year. City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the increase of 139 employees is largely in the part-time category due to the opening of Veterans Memorial Pool. The aquatics center brought concession, operations and lifeguard positions that have also served as training ground for young people, he said.

“It’s turned out to be a great economic development story,” Shawa said.

According to the data, the city had 67 part-time positions when the list was previously aggregated versus 166 for 2019. Full-time positions grew by 40 from 239 to 279.

Shawa further underscored the changing nature of the data, depending on the day. He said six open positions exist within the Police Department, and others also advertised could alter the numbers further through hiring.

He said the city had about 300 full-time positions when the recession hit. After cuts around 2010 and 2011, employment has slowly been rebuilding but has never quite fully recovered.

Walla Walla Community College dropped two spots from 6 to 8 on the list with a decrease of 17 positions. Another noteworthy move was the College Place School District which moved four places from 22 to 18 with a gain of 66 positions.

The list was presented during a Port Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting in tandem with the 2019-’20 ranking of largest taxpayers.

There is some crossover on that list, though large properties do not always translate to large employment.

Packaging Corporation of America is the largest taxpayer in Walla Walla County with a taxable value of about $277.5 million. That amount represents almost 4.5% of the total assessed value of the entire county.

The next largest is FirstFruit Farms LLC with a value of $113.4 million, or 1.82%.

Union Pacific Railroad Company ($80.2 million), Gas Transmission Northwest LLC ($65.4 million), and Pacificorp. ($57.6 million) rounded out the taxable values of the Top 5 taxpayers.

The top 30 largest property owners combined have $1.1 billion of assessed value, representing 17.1% of the county’s $6.2 billion of total assessed value, the Port reported.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.