Aerospace industry, led by Insitu, lifts economies of Columbia Gorge communities

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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WHITE SALMON — On a recent Wednesday morning, Everybody’s Brewing already had a short line at its door 10 minutes before opening.

Then, right before its doors opened, polo-clad workers from a nearby avionics company rounded the corner and joined the wait.

Within an hour, the brewpub roiled with a lunchtime crowd, which seemed out of scale with the midsized building, perched on a hill in a small town that looked to fit well within a postcard for the Columbia River Gorge.

The owners weren’t surprised, though.

“It happens a lot,” said Doug Ellenberger, who co-owns Everybody’s Brewing with his wife, Christine.

Everybody’s Brewing is one of the restaurants in the Gorge now feeding off a new class of customer. Led largely by Insitu Group, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Boeing Co., these companies and their higher-wage workers are breathing life into small businesses in the Gorge that used to subsist on tourists and a few locals.

The brewpub opened in 2008, at the height of the recession, and it’s preparing to double its square footage by April 2018. Ellenberger thanks the aerospace industry and the community at large.

“Companies across the street that work with Insitu, they get out around 11:20 and it’s always a good thing for us,” he said. Employees of aerospace companies, like Insitu and its nearby suppliers, “are the ones who have become the locals. When it’s not the season for tourism, they’re the ones who keep the lights on for us — as well as everyone else in the community,” he said.

Welcome to one of the most resurgent places along the Columbia River, 60 miles east of the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area. Cities on both sides of the river have found success, thanks to landing big players in the drone industry.

In Klickitat County, the home of little towns like White Salmon and Bingen, the population has risen just 3 percent since 2010. But median household income has risen nearly 30 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 10 percent of households in the county earn between $100,000 and $149,999 — more than double its share in 2010.

That rise has given a lifeline to restaurants, hotels and recreational companies in the area, said Tamara Tippel, director of the regional Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce.

“Their presence has had a positive impact on this community overall,” she said of the industry. “I know that if you go to lunch around here, you can go to any number of these little eateries and see people carrying a lanyard indicating they are employees of Insitu” or one of its many suppliers, she said.

‘In the same place’

That is the kind of development that helped Matt Ramey and Jen Peterson decide to locate their second barbecue restaurant in Bingen, rather than a place like Portland.

Pine Shed Ribs and Barbecue, based in Lake Oswego, Ore., will open kitty-corner from the Insitu headquarters on state Highway 14 at the end of June. Ramey said although Bingen’s population is small, it’s also less saturated with eateries.

“If you spend a little bit of time online, you can find a list as long as my arm of restaurants that closed in Portland this year and in 2016,” Ramey said. “They went into Portland to get all the foot traffic, but they were also lost in the noise of other restaurants.”

The couple had vacationed in the area for years but noticed the business opportunity last fall. They jumped on the vacant storefront, and now have what they hope will be a prime location for many years. Across the street, a white commuter bus drops off dozens of Insitu employees who are brought to job sites every day from as far away as Vancouver.

“We knew where their offices were; we thought this might be a good idea,” Ramey said of finding the location. “We signed a lease on it almost immediately. I’m really optimistic about its possibilities long-term.”

The restaurant will also be close to Eagle Point, the 125,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that Insitu opened in 2014. Inside, workers in a bright warehouse piece together the modular drones according to customer specifications.

When completed, the drones can be used to monitor schools of fish, map wildfires or survey crops. Insitu — whose name is latin for “in the same place” — does not weaponize the drones, specifically, but drones without firepower can still map battlefields and, according to company officials, helped save the life of Captain. Richard Phillips, whose experience with Somali pirates was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.

Employment has ballooned at Insitu this year. The company has hired more than 200 employees and plans to hire another 140. It has offices as far away as Vancouver and facilities in Oregon, California, Mississippi, England and Australia.

With all the new faces, Dave Poucher, the mayor of White Salmon, said it’s not uncommon to see the small towns jam-packed on a Friday or Saturday night.

“By 4:30 p.m. Friday, there will not be a parking space in White Salmon,” he said. “Anybody that’s doing any type of business is booming.”

Poucher, 70, said he’s seen enough to think the growth could last for generations.

“There are so many baby carriages, people jogging, pushing strollers and things like that,” he said. “There just seem to be more and more of them.”

Not on the radar

It’s a big turnaround for Klickitat County, which grappled with high unemployment even when times were good for its timber industry and aluminum plant, said David McClure, the county’s economic development director.

Both lifelines fell hard in the 1990s, McClure said, and officials didn’t know where to look.

“In 1995, we were plotting out ‘How do we get our community out of this?’ Aerospace wasn’t even on our radar,” he said. “Insitu pretty much changed the landscape.”

Insitu arrived in Bingen in 1994, but first made headlines four years later when a team of five engineers flew a 29-pound drone from St. John’s, Newfoundland to the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. It was the first unpiloted aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Company officials said business really took off, however, when the military started using drones for reconnaissance in 2004, during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.

Fast-forward to 2014, when the company, now a subsidiary of Boeing Co., built Eagle Point at the Port of Klickitat. Today the company has 1,300 employees, including 900 in the Gorge, said the company’s infrastructure and real estate director, Jenny Taylor.

Besides Insitu, more companies popped up to carve out a role in the industry, some founded by former employees. Zepher Inc. provides “assembly, testing and transportation services,” and Sagetech builds “the world’s smallest aviation surveillance equipment.”

More companies are arriving. In January, Australian propulsion systems company Orbital announced it would set up an office in Bingen.

Today, the Gorge aerospace industry employs about 1,700 people across 17 companies in the Oregon communities of Hood River, Wasco and Sherman, and Skamania and Klickitat counties, according to the Gorge Technology Alliance, an industry association.

“They make a significant difference in the region in terms of employment and the quality of the jobs and the wages they pay,” said executive alliance director Jessica Metta.

Sitting in the thick of the lunchtime clamber at Everybody’s Brewing, McClure, whose job it is to find and retain new businesses in Klickitat County, said he couldn’t take credit for Insitu. He called it a unicorn that just happened to find its way to their land.

“I wish I could claim it,” he said. “It’s the center of gravity for aerospace in this region. For it to pop up here, it’s significant.”

A previous version of this article quoted the director of the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce, Tamara Tippel, with an incorrect last name.