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Town hall gathers Ephrata officials together in one room

Apr. 1—EPHRATA — Eight public officials and figures from Ephrata gathered onstage at the Ephrata High School Performing Arts Center on Thursday evening for the We Are Ephrata Town Hall, providing updates on the various agencies and organizations in the city.

The event was organized and moderated by the Columbia Basin Herald with assistance from students in Ephrata High School's TigerVision group and community leaders.

Community growth

Ephrata Chamber of Commerce Board Member Valli Millard started off the evening by discussing some of the chamber's upcoming events and priorities. The next event coming up is the chamber's free business expo at the Ephrata Recreation Center on April 10. Millard said 39 businesses are signed up to meet with the public so far.

Columbia Basin Hospital Director of Facilities and Safety Officer Javier Meraz then talked about the hospital's Emergency Department Remodel Project.

"The time frame for the project is about a year long. We started on March 4 and we're expected to end March 4 of 2025," he said. "It's a very complex project because of where it takes place."

Meraz said the project will be paid for using hospital savings.

"The cost is going to be $6 million. So this is something the hospital has been preparing for a very long time. We're adding a separate ambulatory entrance to the hospital, so what we want, the focus for this project, is a better patient experience ... Once the emergency department is complete, it's going to be a total of 5,500 square feet, so that's very exciting for the community."

Ephrata School District Assistant Superintendent Ken Murray, who will soon serve as the district's Superintendent, discussed the district's priorities and the recent changes to the 2019 $28 million bond.

Murray said the bond paid for recently completed renovations to the Ephrata Middle School, but due to skyrocketing costs, could not cover what it was fully intended for.

"We intended to also tackle Grant Elementary," he said. "Unfortunately, we had to pause our work a little bit and go back to the drawing board."

Murray said the district has a "reimagining team" working on providing a recommendation for the direction of the district's next bond.

Economic expansion

Port of Ephrata Executive Director David Lanman talked about the port's future and role in Ephrata's economic growth.

Lanman said the port recently upgraded to fuel for smaller jets and hopes to become a regular stop for those jets, bringing more jobs to Ephrata. Lanman also discussed using the port's existing assets, including about 2,200 acres of mostly undeveloped land and current buildings.

"It is our goal to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and expand on that. We have a lot of industry interest in the port, in bringing their jobs, manufacturing and various forms of industry," Lanman said. "As a matter of fact, if I had the infrastructure today, I could lease over 500,000 square feet of warehouse."

Despite the port being in a strong position, Lanman said the biggest limitations are power and water.

"We're in discussions with the city as far as being able to extend power and water to those regions so we can open them up for development," he said.

Ephrata Mayor Bruce Reim also discussed water and infrastructure growth, saying part of the city's job is to prepare the town for population and other local organizations' growth.

"None of these things can be done without infrastructure," he said.

Reim said Ephrata is growing quickly and the city is working to allow that growth.

"So we're being real prudent to grow, vigilant on what we're trying to do to make sure that life is good and able to move on," he said.

One of the more significant efforts is the city's expansion of its water systems and infrastructure, such as the city's wastewater treatment plant.

"We're doing a huge project out there to upgrade that and make that viable for the next 30 years," he said. "We're also working on our wells ... those need to be upgraded so we're doing that too."

First responders

Ephrata Fire Chief Jeremy Burns discussed the fire department's most recent tax measures and the 2015 bond that allowed the department to purchase new equipment and plan for new purchases, such as a new fire engine.

"We ordered a fire truck last year," Burns said. "It's expected to arrive in late 2025. They're not cheaper; they're more difficult to get, so the 2016 fire engine cost $425,000 and the engine that we ordered last year cost almost $800,000."

Still, Burns said the city was responsible with spending, getting the essentials rather than upgraded options that would have led to a bill of more than $1 million.

Burns said it is important the community knows that the department having good equipment encourages more volunteers and that the department takes care of its apparatuses.

"We run more than 600 calls a year," he said. "We're staffed with two chief officers, myself and a deputy fire chief who handles training and fire marshal duties, as well as an administrative assistant. Then we're lucky enough to have 30 volunteer firefighters."

Burns also spoke about the department's need to make sure the firefighters' equipment and safety gear are up-to-date. He also said the planned reservoir in the city will allow the department to fight fires more effectively and the project is progressing quickly.

Ephrata Chief of Police Erik Koch discussed the department's hopes for bringing in new staff to meet the national average. Koch said Washington ranks lowest in the nation for police officers per capita.

"We've been short-staffed since 2019 and we've just been behind the curve," Koch said. "What I proposed and the city is pretty on board with is extending our force, so (the department is) looking at adding a patrol officer over a couple years, each year, 2025, '26, '27, '28. I don't know exactly if that's what it's going to look like, but by expanding the crews by four, I think we're going to be able to serve the citizens of Ephrata much better."

Koch said the department is also looking at the possibility of adding another clerk.

Jail update

Grant County Sheriff Joe Kriete then provided an update on the incoming jail facility, saying the goal for starting the actual construction of the building is mid-May with a goal of completion in late 2025 or early 2026.

Kriete said the original estimated cost for the facility was $80 million, which ballooned to $160 million after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There has been some reduction in some costs and construction costs as of late, which is great news for us," he said. "We're probably not going to get back to the $80 million. But we're hoping that when we get a guaranteed maximum price here in April, we won't have to cut anything that we've already done."

The new facility will be built to house at least 512 inmates, with the ability to increase the capacity.

"The nice thing about this facility is it has the ability to expand to 1,024 beds, and we can do that as soon as it's done," Kriete said. "We have 16 holding cells proposed in this model which is unbelievable for us, and that is not counting the medical area that we'll have for the infirmary, the behavioral health location. So the efficiency of this facility is going to be unbelievable ... This thing will be built for the next 40 years here."

To view the full town hall, visit the TigerVision YouTube page at bit.ly/EphrataTownHall.

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.

Editor's Note: I want to thank each of the members of the panel for their participation in our inaugural event. The goal is to make the We Are Ephrata Town Hall an annual gathering for residents and city leadership to come together and talk about the important things going on in the community. We are also looking at additional town halls in the other communities and both counties we serve. We hope our readers will attend and that each community's leadership will be as supportive as those in Ephrata have been. Together we can make sure the Columbia Basin is a wonderful place to live for a long time to come.