In our view: Are We Portland?

Recession has been especially grim over there, but Clark County can recover more quickly

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Even in the complex issue of the national economy, tough times often are measured by a simple standard: unemployment rates. Currently, those rates are 9.6 percent nationwide, 9.1 in Washington state, 13 percent in Clark County and 10.5 percent in Oregon.

Those numbers suggest that Portland is part of Clark County’s problem, more than part of any solution. That theory is supported by the fact that about 60,000 Clark County residents work in Oregon. Before presenting our glass-half-full analysis, let’s delve deeper into the darker side of this issue. As the nation slogs through the economic crisis and inches toward recovery, the Portland metropolitan area (which includes Clark County) is facing even tougher struggles than comparable cities such as Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis. As Cami Joner reported in Wednesday’s Columbian, Multnomah County has lost more than 26,460 jobs since 1997 and, on a list of 199 U.S. counties, ranks next to last in job creation. Per capita income in the area trails all three of the aforementioned cities by 16 to 21 percent. Investment income is significantly lower.

Those statistics come from a report (http://www.valueofjobs.com) compiled for the Portland Business Alliance by the consulting firm ECONorthwest.

Here’s the eternal question: Is Clark County part of Portland, inextricably linked, or are we a distinct community, sovereign and self-empowered? The answer is both. If those 60,000 local commuters to Oregon won’t convince you that we are part of Portland, then the sheer proximity of the big city (especially its airport and river-island shopping areas) should confirm the point.

But as Bart Phillips often points out, we are in control of our own destiny. Phillips is president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council here in Clark County, and he’s not bashful, noting recently that “we are focused on aggressive economic development efforts here and at local ports. We’re taking action. We’re not going to wait for someone to do it for us.”

The ECONorthwest report “outlines some issues that Portland has, but we don’t have to wait for them to address these issues. We can take action in the companies we recruit,” Phillips said. “We’re autonomous and what we do over here can benefit Portland, just as what they can do can be a benefit to us.”

We envision the day — perhaps in the distant future — when Clark County won’t be so dependent on Oregon for jobs, and here are the building blocks for the economic development success that the CREDC so vigorously pursues:

Washington has no state income tax. By contrast, as of July 2009, Oregon was tied with Hawaii for the highest state income tax in the nation. For the affluent (the jobs creators), the rate is 10.8 percent on incomes above $250,000 and 11 percent above $500,000.

The anti-business attitude in Oregon is piercing and growing. Lawmakers in Salem last year hiked personal and corporate taxes, and Oregon voters in January passed two ballot measures that raised business taxes even more, further suppressing jobs growth.

Schools and the quality of life are better on this side of the river. That matters to company leaders who are seeking to relocate.

Finally, if the recovery ever kicks in, Clark County could be racing much faster than Portland. Fisher Investments is considering increasing its work force in Camas and moving its corporate headquarters and hundreds of jobs here from California. PeaceHealth and Southwest Washington Medical Center have finalized a merger that will have the Bellevue-based company moving its corporate base here.

Clark County will never cease being a part of the Portland metropolitan area. But we could — and should — start running a whole lot faster than our neighbors to the south.