By the students, for the students of Central Washington University

The need for big box retailers in Ellensburg

Hundreds of millions of dollars are leaking out of Kittitas County each year as residents take their business to Yakima

December 6, 2015

Vacant plots of land along the I-90 interchanges are zoned specifically for big box development. They currently sit empty and ready.
Chase Tibbles/Observer
Vacant plots of land along the I-90 interchanges are zoned specifically for big box development. They currently sit empty and ready.

Every year, while millions of Americans are still digesting their Thanksgiving dinner, the holiday season kicks off with consumers spending billions of dollars during Black Friday sales at the nation’s largest retailers.

For Ellensburg residents, bargain hunting at big box stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and Macy’s requires a 72-mile round-trip to Yakima.

With consumers seeking a wider variety of goods and services, a significant amount of retail sales – over $100 million annually – are leaking out of Kittitas County, hindering vital growth of the local economy.

“If there is a level above critical, that’s where it is,” said Kittitas County Commissioner Obie O’Brien on the importance of bringing big box retailers to the area.

O’Brien explained that the absence of large shopping centers and the sales taxes they generate has left Ellensburg’s retail market underdeveloped, putting added pressure on inefficient sources of revenue such as property taxes.

“Overall, residential property does not generate enough tax to pay for itself. For every $2 they put out, it takes $3 to support,” O’Brien said. “We have to have centers of commerce…This county is poised to be a bedroom community to the greater King County area and that’s not a good thing.”

The prospect of big box retailers opening in Ellensburg has been teasing residents since the city completed it’s most recent long term comprehensive plan in 2008.

The new plan rezoned land by I-90’s East and West interchanges specifically for big box development.

“The last thing I accomplished as mayor of Ellensburg was to establish regional retail zones,” O’Brien said. “Prior to what we accomplished with the last comprehensive plan update, there was no zoning that would allow for that.”

The plan also established all of the necessary infrastructure, such as roads, water, and power.

“It’s all set up down there,” O’Brien said. “They [big box stores] just need to plug in and start using it.


Available lots for the proposed shopping center at I-90's west interchange. Lots one, two, and three are reserved for big box retail.
Courtesy of Triple L Properties
Available lots for the proposed shopping center at I-90’s West interchange. Lots one, two, and three are reserved for big box retail.

According to David Bowen, Ellensburg’s director of Economic Development, the city’s proximity to large shopping centers in Yakima has caused hesitation on the part of big box developers.

“We’re 35 miles away [from Yakima] and they want them to be more than 50 miles or more away from each other,” Bowen said.

O’Brien added that Kittitas County’s current population of about 42,000 is too small of a market for several retailers.

“Target has said they won’t consider this county until it has between 50 and 60 thousand people.” O’Brien said.

According to census data, Kittitas County is the fourth fastest growing county in the state and is expected to reach a total population of 60,000 by 2030.

“When you have that kind of growth, you have tremendous opportunity,” O’Brien said.

Residents have also expressed concerns about big box retailers inhibiting the success of locally owned businesses.

“One of the concerns of small towns is big box can put a lot of pressure on small towns,” said Kittitas County Commissioner Gary Berndt, who represents upper Kittitas County, including Cle Elum. “We need to work on how that can be good for everybody.

County officials said that embracing small business is important, but Kittitas needs to modernize and welcome in big box retail.

“There are those people who say ‘always shop local, never buy Wal-Mart, it’ll just kill downtown,’”O’Brien said. “The truth is, our downtown has been fighting against Union Gap’s big box ever since it went in. Every retailer here will tell you they’re still competing.”

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    SharynOct 15, 2021 at 5:26 am

    As many of us here are getting older we need something besides Fred Meyers. We finally have a Dollar general which helps some. As you see are small community has tripled in size and growing everyday. This town needs something

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    Patricia KlockeAug 3, 2021 at 10:03 pm

    We have been in Ellensburg 25 years and I cannot tell you what is in those little business downtown .. Our big outing for shopping is FREDMEYER if we need something big or just big shopping we go to Yakima or Seattle now that is a shame we NEED a big box store here in this town .. there is nothing to do here . We have a college here you would think there would be entertainment here too . the Bowling alley closed too .. We need more shopping to be able to just stay and give our monies to our county instead of ALWAYS driving so far away .. This town has grown leaps and bounds as people from Seattle area are moving here and commuting or working out of their homes.. Farmers are selling off their land here and houses are going up on those lands Where are these people suppose to shop ?? you got it Yakima or Seattle !!! Easton, Cle Elum , Roslyn and Ronald are the towns up north from us here and are our county Kittitas ..WE NEED A BIG BOX HERE !!!