What’s in Clark County’s future for businesses?

2010 ends with many important questions still to be answered

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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New years are often times for new beginnings, not “to be continueds.” But 2011 looks more like the second film in a convoluted trilogy than a tale of fresh starts for Clark County businesses and the economy.

Last year ended with a tangle of unresolved plot twists from companies that have hinted at change but not yet made firm decisions. Will Ken Fisher choose Camas when he moves Fisher Investment’s home base out of California — or will he pick Texas or Florida instead? What are SEH America’s plans for the 174-acre campus it bought from Hewlett-Packard in 2009?

Then there was the looming problem, still unsolved: the county’s persistently high unemployment rate, which has been in the double digits for 24 months and which now clocks in at 13 percent.

And finally the cliffhanger, when the Cowlitz Tribe won reservation status, raising a flurry of questions about its casino plans.

Just as you might expect from the second installment in a three-part series, we know that some of our questions will be answered and some loose threads tied down in the next 12 months. But the resolutions to Clark County’s biggest business and economic uncertainties will probably come in a future installment, in the year 2012 or beyond.

Here are the stories we expect to follow in the year ahead — though only time will reveal how unexpected plot twists may shape the story of 2011.

1. Fisher Investments decides

It’s been more than two years since Fisher began hinting that he could move his company of 1,155 workers from Woodside, Calif., to Camas — though he’s said income-tax-free Texas and Florida are also in the running.

He’s mum about when he’ll make a decision, but odds appear strong that Camas will win out.

The evidence?

• Fisher Investments has already grown to employ 325 people in Clark County, making this its second-biggest site after California.

• Fisher said he expects operations here to grow by about a third in 2011.

• The company broke ground on a $30 million office complex in October.

• And while Fisher said he has “people on the ground” in Texas and Florida, his business does not have significant employment in either of those states.

Whether Fisher will confirm this is another matter. He said he’s waiting until the completion of his first building before formally making a decision. That work should be done by year’s end.

2. Tech questions linger

It’s not as clear whether Clark County’s largest technology employers will, in 2011, answer looming questions about their plans.

When it bought Hewlett-Packard’s campus for $55 million in 2009, SEH America hinted that it could expand its silicon manufacturing to the 700,000 square feet of buildings it had acquired — or it could start making solar panels there.

But the Japanese-owned company also has suggested that it could wait until 2020 to finish build-out of its new site.

We know from public documents that HP employees appear set to move later this year into the east Vancouver building that houses Nautilus headquarters.

But neither HP nor SEH has said more about their plans.

Linear Technology also hinted in April that it might add a second, identical wafer fabrication plant to its campus at 4200 N.W. Pacific Rim Blvd., a move that could bring as many as 300 new high-tech jobs to the area.

But it has since been mum about the possibility, and Camas officials say they don’t know whether they’ll hear more this year.

3. Busy days at the port

Between its own $150 million, multiyear rail expansion, and planned investments on its current and former land, the Port of Vancouver promises to be a bustling place in 2011. Unfortunately, the big payoff of all this activity won’t come until 2012 or later.

The port’s West Vancouver Freight Access project, a 40-mile expansion of rail tracks, will benefit current tenants, could attract new business to Clark County and will eliminate a cargo transportation bottleneck that hurts the entire region.

When it’s finished, port officials say they expect the project will spur creation of 1,000 to 2,000 jobs. Too bad the completion date is in 2017.

Farwest Steel Corp. expects to start construction in March on a $30 million operation center that will eventually employ 228 people on land it purchased from the port.

But we’ll likely have to wait until 2012 before those jobs begin to materialize.

And BHP Billiton will be preparing for construction on a planned export center at the port — but work won’t start until 2012 and end until 2015.

4. New headquarters … but where?

By mid-January, the merger of Vancouver’s Southwest Washington Medical Center with Bellevue-based hospital chain PeaceHealth will be complete.

We’ll closely follow the combination, which will make Southwest part of a 15,000 employee, eight hospital health system with nearly $2 billion in annual revenue. PeaceHealth promises that the local hospital will retain local control over major decisions, while benefiting from stronger bargaining power when it orders goods and negotiates with contractors.

But it seems likely that the changes will go deeper than the supply chain.

At least as significant as the merger is PeaceHealth’s decision to move its headquarters to Clark County. The Catholic nonprofit has a long wish list for its new home office. It wants offices near conference space, restaurants and hotel rooms — and within a short drive of the hospital and Portland International Airport. In 2010, it was beat out by the city of Vancouver in obtaining the six-story downtown building that previously housed The Columbian.

We’ll be watching PeaceHealth’s hunt for real estate in the months ahead.

5. Loose threads

Among the other stories we’ll be following this year:

• State cuts: Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to budget the state’s two-year, $4.7 billion hole with wide-ranging spending cuts would reduce the salaries of the 4,500 state workers who live in Clark County by $9 million, increase doctors’ and hospitals’ financial burden by booting poor people from health insurance programs that otherwise would pay their bills, and reduce work for local contractors that repair old buildings, build new roads and keep the state’s infrastructure intact.

• Casino fight: We don’t expect construction to start on the Cowlitz Tribe’s planned La Center-area casino in 2011, but we do expect more details on Cowlitz intentions for the newly granted reservation. Opponents to the project likely will ramp up their efforts to defeat it.

• Housing certainty: Federal policies and foreclosure errors at banks contributed to a topsy-turvy housing market in 2010, with home sales surging briefly until a temporary tax credit expired and the supply of available homes fluctuating as banks halted and resumed foreclosures. We don’t expect a strong rebound in 2011, but we are hoping for a little more stability.

• Economic development: The Columbia River Economic Development Agency’s status as the county’s lead recruiter of new employers and booster of current local businesses may be challenged in 2011. Groups in east Clark County are working to start their own east county-focused economic development group. The CREDC also is developing a new strategic plan.

• Big projects: Gramor Development said it eventually plans to transform downtown Vancouver’s waterfront into a bustling urban landscape; the owners of the former Evergreen Airport want to build stores, restaurants, offices and homes at the 59-acre site; and Walmart wants to build new stores in Salmon Creek and east Vancouver. We’ll be watching for movement on big construction projects that in 2010 were stalled by the weak economic climate.

Some of these story lines will likely be wrapped up in the year ahead.

The rest? To be continued …