2011: Broke, busted again

For the fourth year in a row, the struggling economy is Clark County’s top story

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Some people assess the economic downturn by poring over unemployment figures or declining tax revenues.

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George Kaufer can measure it in milk.

At a local food-bank outlet, a once-a-month food box for a family of three used to include a half-gallon of milk; it was supposed to be a three-day supply.

Now the milk allotment has been cut in half — but the remaining quart of milk is still supposed to last three days.

“We are definitely experiencing some hard times,” said the president of FISH of Vancouver.

It’s not due to a decline in donations; instead, more hungry people keep showing up. FISH has been around for 42 years, “And we’re setting records,” Kaufer said.

“I thought the need would start easing up. I was wrong.”

It’s an issue that won’t go away. This is the fourth consecutive year The Columbian’s news staff has picked the economic slump as Clark County’s No. 1 story.

It’s not only a lingering story: From George Kaufer’s perspective, it’s getting worse. Demand at FISH, a local food-bank outlet, was up nearly 10 percent in the span of a couple of months. Almost 1,700 families came in for emergency food boxes in November; earlier in the year, it was 1,300 a month.

The ripples of poverty also seem to be spreading, with FISH seeing more first-time visitors.

“About 30 percent of the families hadn’t been to our pantry in the past year,” said Kaufer, who is president of FISH of Vancouver. “These are new folks needing help.”

Agencies and service providers that rely on tax funding have been trimming, and are bracing for more cuts. They include public schools, from K-12 districts to Clark College to Washington State University Vancouver; public safety agencies; corrections officials who monitor released offenders; parks; and the health and human services network.

2 Condit Dam breached

photo A remote video camera captures the force of a massive explosion as it breaches Condit Dam shortly after noon Oct. 26, releasing the White Salmon River for the first time since the dam was built in 1913.

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After a dozen years of planning, Portland utility PacifiCorp blew a hole in 98-year-old Condit Dam in late October.

The blast drained the reservoir, allowing the White Salmon River to flow freely for the first time in a century, and opening the upper river to migrating salmon and steelhead.

At 125 feet, it was the second-highest U.S. dam to be breached. The dramatic explosion at the dam’s base, which unleashed massive plumes of sediment, was watched throughout the Northwest on a live video feed.

Next spring, crews will dismantle the concrete structure.

3 Murder-suicides by fire

Two murder-suicides combined with arson stunned Clark County.

Tuan Dao started an Easter morning fire that killed the 37-year-old man and five of his children, ages 6 to 12, inside their home at 15304 N.E. 13th Circle in Vancouver, police said.

Police said they believe the threat of bankruptcy led to the deadly fire. Dao’s family said they believe he feared that his estranged wife, Lori, would take his children away.

On Dec. 7 in Washougal, Steven Stanbary opened fire to keep emergency responders away while his house at 3275 F Place burned around him, police said. Investigators found the charred remains of three people in the ruins: Stanbary, 47; Leona Bolton-Stanbary, 50, his wife of 11 years; and her twin sister, Mona Daugherty.

He was expected to surrender to authorities the following day on charges he raped a child. Stanbary had a history of violence and mental instability. A 1994 psychologist’s report called him a “ticking time bomb.”

4 ‘Gang Green’ drug raids

photoClark County Sheriff's deputy James Naramore tags a bag of marijuana while processing evidence after serving a warrant at a home in the Orchards area as part of the Operation Gang Green raids on dozens of Clark County homes on October 13.

The Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force crippled a marijuana grow operation in the largest local drug raid in recent memory.

About 300 officers from 16 local and federal agencies raided 56 locations on Oct. 13. Operation Gang Green netted 6,800 marijuana plants and put at least 49 people behind bars on suspicion of manufacturing marijuana or possession with intent to deliver, both felonies.

The suspects clogged the court system the following day, prompting formation of two special first-appearance dockets. A prosecutor said the operation netted $10 million in one year.

At year’s end, the cases were still to be adjudicated, but on Dec. 29, 13 of the defendants were indicted on federal drug charges.

According to a probable cause affidavit, the cartel was instrumental in shipping 47 pounds to Wyoming, 54 pounds to Portland and 38 pounds to Nebraska.

5 Bears baseball plan

After months of private meetings with community leaders, owners of the Yakima Bears announced in May that they wanted to move the Class A baseball team to Vancouver. The catch? The Board of Clark County Commissioners would have to impose a 5 percent entertainment admissions tax to help pay off debt on a $19.5 million stadium to be built at Clark College.

All the big local business groups backed the proposal, claiming that a minor league baseball team would build community prosperity. Opponents said it was unfair to make other people — moviegoers, mostly — help finance a different type of entertainment, and said it was a terrible time for any tax that’s not for a basic public service.

The tax never made it to a vote because Commissioner Marc Boldt, the swing vote, said he couldn’t support it. Plus, Boldt had heard from a majority of Vancouver City Council members who said they wouldn’t approve a necessary agreement to complete the deal.

6 Downtown makeover

A 162-year occupant of downtown Vancouver moved out in September, contributing to the city core’s makeover.

An Army contingent trekked 2,500 miles to Fort Vancouver in 1849. But the Army’s role at Vancouver Barracks has diminished. The remaining Army Reserve and National Guard units moved to a new center in Sifton.

Two other long-standing institutions relocated from 1960s-era facilities. Vancouver’s new City Hall opened in August at 415 W. Sixth St. The building had been largely vacant since late 2008, after The Columbian staff moved out as part of a bankruptcy case; the city bought it from a bank for $18.5 million.

The downtown library moved into a new $38 million building in July. The Vancouver Community Library at 901 C St. was built with the help of a $5 million gift from Jan and Steve Oliva.

Another longtime landmark disappeared in September. The downtown Burgerville restaurant, which opened in 1962, was demolished to make way for an apartment and retail project.

7 Abuse cases

photoAlayna Higdon, 26

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photoJohn Eckhart, 30

Two shocking child abuse cases hit the news. In April, a Vancouver couple, Alayna Higdon and John Eckhart, were arrested for allegedly locking their young autistic sons in a caged room.

Then in October, Sandra and Jeffrey Weller of Vancouver were arrested on suspicion of locking their 16-year-old adoptive twins in a room without food.

If the twins sneaked food, they were allegedly beaten with a wooden board, police reported.

Both cases made the national spotlight. Higdon and Eckhart have a trial date of March 12. Jeffrey Weller has a March 26 trial date; his wife has a March 6 review hearing on her mental competency.

8 Columbia River Crossing

Columbia River Crossing planners reached two major milestones. In April, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber chose the less-expensive deck truss-style option to replace the aging Interstate 5 Bridge. While the flat-deck-style bridge is less aesthetically pleasing than the taller cable-stay bridge design that also was considered, the simpler design will help the project stay on time and on budget.

The Federal Transit Administration gave the go-ahead in December to plans for the Columbia River Crossing. The formal Record of Decision means CRC leaders can go after funding, begin acquiring rights of way and start construction. Some planners feel construction might start in late 2013, but project director Nancy Boyd calls that “optimistic.”

9 Davy Crockett cleanup (tie)

photoMore than 80 percent of the broken barge Davy Crockett has been dismantled and removed from the Columbia River near Camas, according to state and U.S. Coast Guard officials. Cleanup of the partially sunken vessel began in January.

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The barge Davy Crockett buckled and spilled oil and debris in the Columbia River near Camas in early 2011, triggering a 10-month, $22 million cleanup.

Owner Bret Simpson of Ellensburg had purchased the derelict vessel in 2010 and attempted to scrap it in the water, despite thousands of gallons of oil and fuel on board the vessel, a converted World War II freighter. When the operation went awry, the Coast Guard stepped in with officials from both Washington and Oregon to lead a complex cleanup that involved taking the hulk apart piece by piece.

Crews finished the cleanup in November.

Simpson is charged with two felony violations of the Clean Water Act. He could face prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted. The case is set to go to trial in August.

9 First Independent Bank sold (tie)

First Independent Bank, a longtime presence in local business and philanthropic circles, signaled a transition two months ago. First Indy’s major assets, plus all deposits and banking operations, are being acquired by Spokane-based Sterling Savings Bank, leaders of the two banks announced in November.

Sterling’s purchase, to be completed early in 2012, spells an end to one of the nation’s few remaining family-owned banks.

It marks the end of an era personified by E.W. Firstenburg, who purchased the Ridgefield State Bank in 1936 and built it into First Independent; he died in 2010.