Kelso’s economy is predominantly retail, commercial and service oriented. The city’s largest employers include Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant, Cowlitz County, and Kelso School District. The city also has a mall that encompasses over 420,000 square feet and includes two anchor stores; Sportsman’s Warehouse, and J.C. Penney. Additional employment is provided by regional employers such as KapStone Paper and Packaging Corp. (formerly Longview Fibre Company), PeaceHealth/St. John Hospital, and Nippon Paper Industries Company, LTD (formerly Weyerhaeuser Company), which are located in neighboring Longview, Washington and in Cowlitz County, Washington.
The regional economy is based on a mixture of industrial, commercial and service activity. Wood and paper products processing, steel processing, trade and port activity, as well as healthcare, make up the economic foundation of the area. The economy as a whole has become more diversified in recent years, but remains materially dependent on the forest products industry and, as a result, is relatively vulnerable to the cyclical downturns of that industry. The average unemployment rate for the Kelso/Longview metropolitan area in 2017 was 6.1 percent compared with state and national rates of 4.8 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.