Economic report, first quarter 2010: County sees few gains

Electronics, health care, building up, but unemployment stays high

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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Few gains have been made in Clark County’s economy since the recovery officially took hold late last year. After a fairly flat first quarter, several factors need to change before real progress can occur.

Clark County’s economy made modest gains in a few sectors, including health care and electronics manufacturing — the latter of which benefited from a 56 percent rise in global semiconductor sales. Home sales and home construction also both enjoyed large gains in the first quarter of 2010, compared with the same quarter of 2009.

Top stories of the first quarter, 2010

JANUARY

• A record 475,000 Washington residents received unemployment benefits during 2009.

• Providence Health & Services plans to break ground in March on a $6.5 million east Clark County medical office building.

FEBRUARY

• Former Bank of Clark County executive David Kennelly pleaded guilty to a felony charge for attempting to hide real estate appraisals from federal regulators.

• The Columbian Publishing Co. emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

• Northwest Natural Gas Co. announced large bonuses for all of its employees after posting record earnings of $75.1 million in 2009.

MARCH

• Vancouver’s Southwest Washington Health System announced it is entering merger negotiations with PeaceHealth.

• First Independent Bank received a $19.2 million capital infusion, part of $44 million provided by its holding company in a nine-month period.

But those slight improvements were largely overshadowed by the broader job market, which continued to deteriorate.

Clark County lost about 3,600 jobs between December and March as the unemployment rate climbed to an unadjusted 14.8 percent in March from an adjusted 14.3 percent in December. That’s compared with a jobless rate of 12.8 percent in March 2009.

“We’re still hurting,” said Scott Bailey, Southwest regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department. “The unemployment rate is still close to a record high and the initial unemployment claims are lower than a year ago but still very high.”

The bright spot in the county economy, for a few quarters running now, has been semiconductor manufacturing. Chipmakers and their suppliers, including giants SEH America and Linear Technology, began to ramp up production in the fourth quarter of 2009 and reported a return to full capacity in the first quarter. That finally registered in the employment numbers in March, as the industry added 100 permanent jobs after months of hiring temporary workers.

Building permits issued in Clark County also saw a whopping 193 percent increase to 170 in the first quarter compared with 58 issued during the same quarter a year ago. Most of that increase came in March, which marked the first month since mid-2007 that more than 100 permit applications were filed in unincorporated Clark County.

Home sales increased 31 percent in the first three months of 2010 compared with the same period a year ago.

Still, building permit applications are only a fraction of what they were at the height of Clark County’s construction boom. And the impending expiration this month of the federal first-time and move-up home buyer tax credits may have artificially boosted home sales in March.

“Prices are still going to come down,” Bailey said. “There’s more foreclosures to work through and some evidence nationally that foreclosures are picking up.”

Looking ahead, Bailey says the county’s full recovery will ultimately depend on clearing out the remaining foreclosures from the housing market while consumers pay down their debt. Until then, he expects job losses to hit bottom this year and “bounce there for a while” with small improvements in employment by the end of the year.