Clark County fourth quarter economic report

Many challenges remain, but 2010 ended on an encouraging note for private sector

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Take two steps forward and one step back. You may be frustrated by your slow pace, but at least you’re moving forward.

Business headlines in the fourth quarter of 2010 suggest that’s just what’s happening in Clark County: slow and steady progress despite occasional setbacks. But to thousands of local job seekers, the headlines seem at odds with economic reality.

At the start of October, 12.4 percent of the county’s work force was unemployed. By the end of December, unemployment had reached 13.1 percent. Over the past year, Clark County has lost 1,000 jobs.

In the final month of 2010, much-needed improvements to the upper Columbia and Snake rivers’ navigation systems led to a four-month river closure, prompting temporary layoffs of 100 Tidewater Barge workers. Diaper maker Associated Hygienic Products announced it was closing its Vancouver plant and moving a portion of its 101 employees to factories in Texas and Ohio.

And the real estate market remained abysmal, with the median home sale price dropping 8 percent in one year, to $197,850. That’s down 27 percent from the market’s mid-2006 peak. A weak market kept developers idle. The construction industry, already decimated in recent years, shed another 700 jobs during the fourth quarter of 2010. By the end of the year, only 7,800 worked in construction, down from more than 12,200 a few years earlier.

The good news is that evidence increasingly suggest that the worst may be over for the private sector.

In the fourth quarter, Westfield Vancouver mall announced plans for a multimillion-dollar face-lift. Scheduled to begin next week, that work is sure to bring short-term construction jobs. Fisher Investments broke ground on its $30 million office complex, creating construction jobs now and making room for permanent jobs later. PeaceHealth announced that it would move its headquarters to Vancouver, a decision that will eventually bring up to 700 jobs to this community. Costco hired about 350 people when it opened its second Clark County store. Retailers reported improved Christmas sales after two years of dismal results.

“We’ve turned the corner and we really are looking forward to our next 100 years,” Jeanne Firstenburg, president and chief executive officer of Vancouver-based First Independent Bank, announced Friday at The Columbian’s 2011 Economic Forecast breakfast. “In the third and fourth quarters of 2010 we made some bold moves and changes that are beginning to take off.”

At the same event, Tim Shauer, president and CEO of MacKay and Sposito, reported that his Vancouver-based firm has seen an uptick in business. The company experienced 50 percent staff growth in 2010.

Large public companies are posting strong profits, and smaller, local businesses are also reporting improvements.

As business improved in late 2010, however, many companies sat on cash — afraid to hire until they could be certain that the sales rebound will last. Regional economist Scott Bailey, with the Washington Employment Security Department, forecasts that businesses in a number of sectors will begin to overcome that fear in the year ahead.

If the hiring announced in the fourth quarter of 2010 represents a step forward for Clark County’s unemployed, and new hiring promised for 2011 is a second step, then government is the force that’s pulling us back.

State and local governments continued grappling with major crises in the fourth quarter of 2010; school districts know they face cuts as well. The question is, will the job cuts to the public sector be small enough that we can build at least some forward momentum? Or will the first quarter of 2011 look at lot like the end of 2010, with two small steps forward, one big step back, and not enough forward momentum to make a dent in unemployment?

Top Clark County business stories of fourth quarter 2010

OCTOBER

• Owner of portion of East Ridge Business Park defaults on $44 million loan.

• Westfield Vancouver mall announces multimillion-dollar face-lift to include addition of Cinetopia theater.

• Fisher Investments breaks ground on $30 million complex.

NOVEMBER

• Voters defeat Initiative 1098, which would have instituted an income tax on the state’s top earners.

• PeaceHealth announces it will move its headquarters to Vancouver following its merger with Southwest Washington Medical Center.

• Costco opens its second Clark County store.

 DECEMBER

• Tidewater Barge temporarily lays off 100 workers for 14-week closure of upper Columbia and Snake river shipping.

• Documents confirm that Hewlett-Packard will leave its longtime home to share space with Nautilus.

• PeaceHealth and Southwest Washington Medical Center ink final merger agreement.