Jobs, housing loom large in 2011

Those issues’ continued struggles overshadowed several good developments for Clark County

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Other business news of note

In the headlines in 2011

Saying that high unemployment and a housing market in the doldrums overshadowed the good news stories of 2011 is kind of like saying the elephant in the room made it awfully hard to notice the mouse.

When people are worried about job security or can’t find work at all, owe more on their homes than they can sell them for, and don’t know when these problems are going to be fixed, it can be hard for them to celebrate a few new jobs here and the promise of other jobs there in the future.

Yet 2011 did have a few bright spots, and there’s promise of more to come. PeaceHealth’s merger with Southwest Washington Medical Center started with a name change for the local hospital, but as the chain moves its headquarters to Vancouver there are hundreds of jobs on the horizon. Port of Vancouver investments in rail and wooing of new tenants will take time to pay off, but could ultimately create 1,000 new jobs.

Future job creation is of small comfort for those who need help now. These incremental developments, along with other top stories of 2011, are like a mouse overshadowed by an elephant. But one of these days, the mouse could learn to roar.

Brother, can you spare a job?

On the surface, Clark County’s jobs situation seemed to improve over the course of 2011. The year ended with 11 percent unemployment, a big improvement over January’s 13.2 percent jobless rate. Dig deeper, however, and the data’s not so pretty. At the same time as businesses picked up hiring, cash-strapped state and local government groups were delivering pink slips. And about 3,000 Clark County residents left the labor force, including many long-term unemployed residents of the county who gave up the search for work.

What’s more, first-time claims for unemployment insurance remained at high levels, according to Scott Bailey, regional labor economist with the Washington Employment Security Department.

“While there are net job gains, there’s still considerable job loss being generated,” he reported.

Redefining ‘home’

Just a few years back, Clark County hosted a booming home construction industry, with rising property values that made longtime residents feel well-to-do. Those days are long gone. In 2011, a years-long pattern continued to play out: Construction was low, foreclosures were high, home sales — though up some from the bottom — were low, and property values were depressed. Sales of single-family homes may not resume healthier levels until the county’s high unemployment rate comes down.

Many local people reacted by changing how they define “home.”

Growing numbers opted to rent, rather than buy, driving down vacancies at Clark County apartment complexes. That spurred new investment in multiunit housing, with a 418-unit complex proposed at Southeast 177th Avenue between Mill Plain and Southeast First Street, a 100-apartment complex planned east of

Southeast 192nd Avenue south of 20th Street, and 92 residential units slated to take up a full downtown Vancouver block bordered by Mill Plain Boulevard, D, C and 13th streets.

Port of opportunity

Someone seems to have forgotten to tell the businesses and leaders at the Port of Vancouver that these are tough economic times.

While other government bodies spent much of 2011 cutting back, the port continued to win grants and loans to fund its West Vancouver Freight Access project. The $150 million, 27-mile expansion of rail tracks is already speeding cargo handling, and will allow port tenants to move even more goods more quickly by its completion in 2017. Port officials estimate the project will contribute to creation of 1,000 jobs in the next five to 10 years.

Business investments at the port suggest a private-sector vote of confidence in that vision. Farwest Steel Corp. broke ground this summer on a Vancouver steel fabrication plant after buying 20 acres. It expects to bring about 230 new and relocated jobs to Clark County. Sapa Extrusions, a subsidiary of Norwegian industrial conglomerate Orkla, plans to bring up to 100 existing and new jobs to Vancouver by expanding operations into a 142,800-square-foot building it leased from the port. And BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest companies, reaffirmed its plans to start exporting potash, a fertilizer ingredient, from the port by 2015.

With United Grain Corp. also expanding, the port’s on track to triple its freight handling to around 15 million metric tons within the next decade, according to Larry Paulson, the port’s executive director. Paulson will not lead all of that change. He announced in 2011 that he’ll be retiring in April; second-in-command Todd Coleman will take his place.

PeaceHealth merger

PeaceHealth’s plans to take over Southwest Washington Medical Center and move its headquarters from Bellevue to Vancouver were cemented in 2011. That should bring about 340 new jobs to Vancouver by 2014, and 300-400 more by the end of the decade.

The local hospital has adopted a new name, PeaceHealth Southwest, and PeaceHealth has inked an agreement to move into Columbia Center at Columbia Tech Center, 1115 S.E. 164th Ave., the former Nautilus headquarters. Though the site is shared with Hewlett-Packard now, PeaceHealth could ultimately occupy the entire building as it grows, said Alan Yordy, president and chief mission officer.

“We’re delighted to be part of this community,” Yordy said.

First Independent’s last days

After more than a century in Clark County, First Independent Bank’s last full year in operation was 2011. Late in the year, First Indy leaders announced that they were selling banking operations to Spokane-based Sterling Savings Bank.

Sterling’s purchase spells an end to one of the nation’s few remaining family-owned banks, and leaves Clark County with only one remaining locally headquartered bank, Riverview.

Founded as Ridgefield State Bank 101 years ago, First Independent had since the 1930s been run by the Firstenburg family, which built its reputation in the business and philanthropy worlds. But community giving by the bank had dropped in recent years as financial hardship ate into profits.

Sterling will acquire $691 million of First Independent’s core deposits and 14 branches in Clark and Skamania counties, in addition to $455 million of assets under management from First Independent’s wealth and trust businesses.

It remains to be seen how local jobs and philanthropy will be affected by the transition.

Staff writers Cami Joner, Aaron Corvin and Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.