Clark County First quarter economic report

Running in place — or running twice as fast? First quarter was a mixed bag, as hopeful signs blended with lingering sluggishness

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

The 146-year-old fictional dilemma rings depressingly true in Southwest Washington today.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” the Red Queen famously said in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Top Clark County business stories of first quarter 2011

JANUARY

• PeaceHealth cements merger acquisition of Southwest Washington Medical Center, clearing the ground for the nonprofit to move its headquarters to Vancouver. That move is expected to bring 700 jobs in 10 years.

• Walmart opens in Woodland, hiring 300 people.

FEBRUARY

• Massive components that arrived by ship head by truck from Port of Vancouver to Canadian oil sands.

• New Seasons announces it’s coming to Vancouver.

• First Independent Bank celebrates financial turnaround, helped by cash infusions from the bank’s deep-pocketed board.

MARCH

• Columbia and Snake river system work enables Tidewater Barge to rehires about 100 workers who had been idled.

• Burgerville announces it will close its downtown Vancouver restaurant by October to make way for apartments.

• Japan earthquake has repercussions for Japanese-owned Clark County employers, including SEH America. SEH had several Vancouver workers visiting the country when the quake hit.

• Vancouver-based Larry O. Collins Inc. calls it quits after 78 years in commercial construction.

There’s plenty of good news on Clark County’s horizon — construction at Fisher Investments in Camas portends future hiring; PeaceHealth says it will bring 700 jobs within 10 years of moving to Vancouver; Farwest Steel and BHP Billiton could relocate and hire about 300 workers once they follow through on plans for the Port of Vancouver.

But though Clark County’s job-seekers and economic boosters are running hard and fast for that horizon, it never seems to get any closer. Instead, “Unemployment remains disturbingly high in Southwest Washington, and job growth depressingly low,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department.

We’ve had more than two years to adjust to this new normal, but in the first three months of 2011, climbing rents, food costs and gasoline prices put a new strain on household budgets that had already been squeezed nearly dry.

For a while, Clark County’s jobless rate appeared to be improving. It peaked at 15.6 percent in March 2010 before dropping into the 13 percent range in the middle of the year. Since then, things have stalled.

In the first quarter of the year, unemployment continued to hover around 13 percent, the median home sold for 9.3 percent less than a year ago, gas prices climbed by 25 percent. Fuel is up even more since the start of April.

Beth Drake of Vancouver, who lives on a fixed income, said it’s increasingly hard to get by. “After I pay my bills, I have $100 left each month,” she said. “And with that I have to buy my groceries.”

Some good news did trickle in from around Clark County in the first quarter. Ridgefield-based Agave Denim said that sales were climbing. Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge hired back about 100 workers who had been temporarily laid off. Walmart opened its Woodland store — distressing to opponents of the big-box chain but heartening to the 300 people hired to work there.

But cuts elsewhere were deep enough to counteract that hiring. Wells Fargo laid off 68 workers from a Vancouver call center. Larry O. Collins Inc. closed after 78 years in commercial construction, citing a shortage of local projects, stiff competition and rising costs.

And a big earthquake in Japan, which devastated that country, brought uncertainty to one of Clark County’s major sectors: semiconductors.

Shin-Etsu Chemical Co., parent of Vancouver-based SEH America, was hard hit by the quake, and some of its Japanese operations were taken offline. In the short term that’s boosted Vancouver operations, which are at maximum capacity to make up for supply-chain shortfalls abroad.

But nobody yet knows how the industry’s recovery will ultimately affect U.S. semiconductor manufacturing.

Uncertainty is increasingly the name of the game, said Arun Raha, Washington’s chief economist, during a recent visit to Vancouver.

In April 2010, Raha was optimistic that recovery was well under way. Then Greece faced a paralyzing financial crisis that disrupted Europe, “and the economic recovery lost steam,” he said.

Since running fast and hard for the horizon doesn’t seem to be getting us any closer, that steam seems especially crucial today.