Economic council focuses on jobs

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Plan called blueprint for region’s recovery

A blueprint for job creation and economic recovery in Southwest Washington and Clark County keyed to technology research, renewable energy, industrial land development and a regional approach to expansion was unveiled in Vancouver on Wednesday. But those in charge of moving the initiatives forward say it may take years.

Population growth, which drove the region’s economy in the past, is “fundamentally changed,” Bart Phillips, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, told an audience of several hundred during a membership lunch at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

“The recession is here in spades,” Phillips said. “It’s brutal for the nearly 30,000 people out of work. The economic driver going forward over the next five to seven years will not be a return to population growth, but instead it will be job growth.”

Facing the worst downturn since the early 1980s when the development council was first organized, its staff set out this fall to identify economic and business trends in the region and recommend ways to advance economic recovery. To that end, council staff hosted 14 separate industry and business focus sessions that brought 85 people together in small discussion groups.

“We were looking for new opportunities to participate in moving the county forward,” said Kelly McDonald, development council board chairman. “In the past we’ve left most of this work to the staff. We recognize that we need to be more engaged as an organization in what’s going on. To that end we’re going to use the talents on this board.”

McDonald said the council expects to continue its basic job recruitment and lobbying efforts in the state Legislature on behalf of business and industry, but it also will focus on five additional initiatives. Those include a renewed emphasis on development of an innovation technology center and business park on the Washington State University Vancouver campus. The zone would nurture a larger cluster of tech employers here tied to semiconductor and other tech research and development.

First step

Two years ago, the university won funding to add an electrical engineering major in Vancouver and also strengthen it relationship with the Washington Technology Center in Seattle. Land on the north edge of the Salmon Creek WSUV campus was designated an innovation zone, seen as a first step toward developing a research-oriented business park.

The council also intends to push for a new approach to land-use management geared to job growth, rather than population growth. That effort will require an inventory of the region’s industrial land base and dialogue for how best to offer that land for development.

The council expects to host a summit of elected officials and others from throughout Southwest Washington early next year to consider a broader and more collaborative marketing and job-recruitment strategy for the region.

It also will explore the creation of a private equity fund to support capital expansion projects of the region’s businesses in the face of a decline in local bank lending.

Phillips said the council board will review progress on the work at least every quarter.

“We can’t affect the macro economic cycle that we’re in, but we can affect how we recover … not so much when, but how,” he said. “Right now, we’re down and it looks like a recovery will be slow, but it will be a shared effort.”

Eric Fuller, a commercial real estate broker, was encouraged by the CREDC plan.

“This is going to be successful on all fronts … with the support of the members, this will move forward,” Fuller said.

John McKibbin, a developer and former Clark County commissioner, saw challenges from the capital side.

“Money for innovation and land for jobs are two issues,” McKibbin said. “But we’ve got a dedicated organization that can deliver.”

2009 record

Despite a weak economy that slowed economic development in Clark County, the council boasted of seven recruitment successes in the past year that brought a combined $72 million in business development and 167 direct jobs to the area.

“The years 2008 and 2009 were the slowest of the past decade for the council,” Phillips said. “While the fundamentals of economic development remain, we need to become more innovative if we want to be as competitive as possible coming out the other side.”

The development council operated this year with a budget of $850,000, a figure that will drop to $803,000 in 2010.