Rick Heiberg Likes the “Rural Flavor” of Grant County

Posted on May 27, 2016

Rick HeibergRick Heiberg first came to Grant County as a kid with his family, vacationing at Sun Lakes. As an adult, he brought his children here, also to Sun Lakes from their home in Woodinville. He liked it so much, he moved here in 1999. Heiberg has been on the Board of Directors of the Grant County Economic Development Council since 2013.

Heiberg, who turns 70 this year, was born in Ballard, Washington and lived in Edmonds through his high school years. While he dreamed of going to California to get away from the rain and gloom of the west side of the state, he ended up working for Boeing for 37 years. In that time, he managed to never get laid off, though many of his co-workers were. In January 1970 he took a week's vacation in California, and when he came back, half the people he worked with were gone. "I survived," he says. "Hung on by the skin of my teeth" even through the SST cancellation in 1971 when there were billboards in Seattle saying "would the last one out of the city please turn off the lights?" Heiberg says that in '71 Boeing employed 120,000 people, but by 1973 it was 37,500.

"I worked at every Boeing site there is," Heiberg says. He traveled all over the country and all over the world working in the training organization for the company. "Best job I ever had at the company." At that time there were 1,000 people in training, Heiberg explains. Now he says it's probably fifty, he says. The most interesting place he worked was Bangalore, India for a month in 1995. He found the "unbelievable extreme differences" there interesting. For example, the city was concerned that American restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken were putting MSG in their food. But on the street he'd see a food vender cooking and selling meat that they would cut up on the curb itself and no one apparently cared.

In the early 1990s he and his wife Wendy started looking at real estate in the Coulee City area. In 1998 they bought a house in Coulee City and moved there in 1999. In 2002 he retired from Boeing.

Heiberg first served on the Coulee City Planning Commission and still does, now as chairman. He ran for mayor of Coulee City in 2009 and served from 2010 to 2013. He had read the state statutes and knew what a mayor in a strong mayor system could do. So he went to work and got money for the new water tower, paved some city streets, and got a grant for new boat docks.

Unfortunately, there was a group of residents who fought him the entire way. They brought a recall petition against him for eleven alleged violations. The petition went all the way to the State Supreme Court where it was thrown out by a vote of 9-0. But, Heiberg says, "They kept it up until the day I left office."

"I wouldn't want that job anymore," Heiberg says of being mayor. "I was an outsider, not from here," and a threat to the status quo, he explains, even if the status quo was going downhill.

"I still believe in the great unrealized potential of this area," he says. That was why, as mayor, he became a Director of the Grant County EDC. He joined so that he would "hear what's going on in the county" and "learn things I could share and report on anything to promote the town." Heiberg explains that in Coulee City, agriculture is the biggest driver of the economy, but tourism is number two. So he tried to promote the "biggest thing" the city has going which is Memorial Day weekends with the Last Stand Rodeo that attracts 3,000 people. The city also has a "Cow Pie Jog" that's five kilometers long and a parade down Main Street that weekend.

Heiberg is also involved in the Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway and Grant County Tourism. He says it's important to support the Grant County EDC "because we need to do whatever we can do to promote trade, jobs, and development in the county. The EDC has done a great job, he says, and been an "enabler and promoter" of development.

"There are a lot of things people don't know about the EDC," Heiberg says, including how it works not only in the county but nationally and internationally such as going to the Paris Air Show to help bring in business. They "reach out all over the world to spread the word about what we have here," Heiberg says.

The biggest change Heiberg says he's seen in Grant County from an economic development standpoint is the emerging focus on data centers. Also, he says, another change is the growth of the wine industry in the county with orchards being replaced by vineyards. He also likes how Big Bend Community College has an "increased effect" on the area by "providing greater educational opportunities for the people of Grant County and beyond."

"I'd like to see more economic development in smaller towns," Heiberg says, acknowledging that "that's hard" with the limited resources of small towns, including labor availability. "I don't know how you do it," he adds. Coulee City, he says, has a population of 650 people but "it's sort of dying on the vine."

Heiberg managed to go back to school and get an undergraduate degree in 2006 from Northwest University in Kirkland. Then he decided to get his masters, achieving an MBA in 2009. But, he says, he was stupid because if he had done it when he worked at Boeing, the company would have paid the entire cost.

What Heiberg likes about living in Grant County is the "300 days of sunshine" and "I like the rural flavor." Heiberg says he's "into politics." "I'm into being as informed as a private citizen can be." He says people need to get their news from multiple sources. He is a State Committeeman for the Republican Party and Precinct Committee Officer for the Coulee City precinct. He is also thinking about writing a book about his experiences of being mayor.