Study urges cooperation, innovation; No quick end to struggles

Several companies plan to move jobs here, but it may take years for recovery to take hold

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Home sales faltered, home values fell, unemployment stagnated, retail sales growth slowed. The second quarter of 2011 was anything but pretty in Clark County.

Top Clark County business stories of second quarter 2011

APRIL

New Seasons Produce announces plans to open on Southeast 164th Avenue this year.

Developer Elie Kassab announces plans to build a four-story apartment complex on the site of downtown’s Burgerville.

Local cable regulators begin reviewing Comcast’s application to renew its franchise.

Sapa Extrusions promises to bring 100 jobs to the Port of Vancouver.

MAY

Bart Phillips announces he’ll leave the CREDC and Ginger Metcalf confirms she’ll leave Identity Clark County.

PeaceHealth chooses to locate its headquarters in the same east Vancouver building where Nautilus is based  and Hewlett-Packard is moving.

Camas mayor quits to take job heading new east county economic development group.

JUNE

Penguin Windows announces it will shut down, costing 156 Vancouver jobs.

6; Sharp’s Solar Energy Solutions Group announces it will relocate from California to Camas, bringing up to 35 jobs.

Sure, there was some good news — Sapa Extrusions said it would bring 100 jobs to the Port of Vancouver, Sharp’s Solar Energy Solutions Group announced it would relocate from California to Camas, bringing up to 35 jobs. Those announcements add to other commitments made over the past year by PeaceHealth, FarWest, BHP Billiton and others. But it will take months or years before all the promised jobs arrive. Meanwhile, local leaders are examining policies and looking for ways to strengthen Southwest Washington’s economy for the long run.

The Columbia River Economic Development Council’s first economic plan in a decade, released in June, surveyed the local challenges and concluded: “It is clear that Clark County’s economic development partners cannot afford to be anything but aggressive.”

To achieve success, the county will need to develop a distinctive business identity, and the multitude of ports, city and county governments, and economic development interests will need to work together for the greater good of the entire county, the plan concluded. The county should develop business niches and work with Washington State University Vancouver to create a business-oriented research park, which could require some form of new taxes, it said.

If the consultants who were commissioned to study Clark County’s economy are right, their recommendations could help next time economic doldrums hit. But it will take years of hard work to bring about those big changes.

And it’s not clear who will be leading those efforts. Bart Phillips left his longtime position with the Columbia River Economic Development Council, a nonprofit that has been one of the county’s most prominent advocates for business growth. A new east county economic development group could spur job creation in Camas and Washougal, as long as it cooperates with the CREDC, instead of competing.

In the meantime, many in Clark County are struggling. The county’s unemployment rate has hovered near 13 percent for a year. Food banks and social service groups serve ever more people.

And a recent analysis suggests Clark County’s economy will take at least five years to recover — and quite likely even longer.

To get the county’s unemployment rate to 5 percent by 2016, local employers would have to add 5,300 jobs annually, according to an analysis by Scott Bailey, regional economist with the state Employment Security Department. That’s 5,000 more jobs than the county has gained in the past year.

The Great Recession “left a huge hole in the Clark County labor market,” Bailey told Columbian reporter Aaron Corvin in May. “Recoveries after meltdowns are notoriously slow.”

In the first quarter of the year, growth in manufacturing and strong retail sales seemed to hint that the U.S. and Clark County economies were at least picking up steam. But manufacturers and stores both grew more slowly in the second quarter.

On Friday, Fannie Mae revised its 2011 economic growth forecast downward. The mortgage giant now expects the national economy will grow by 2.4 percent this year, slower than in 2010. Recent history suggests that Clark County will probably continue to lag the rest of the U.S.

But there are reasons for hope. New Seasons will open a store on Southeast 164th Avenue later this year and a second Vancouver store after that. Sharp, PeaceHealth, Sapa Extrusions, FarWest, BHP Billiton and others all want to move work here. These businesses have all decided that Clark County is a desirable place to do business. It may not happen fast enough to please the county’s nearly 28,000 unemployed residents, but other companies are bound to follow.

And remember, the U.S. has weathered more than two dozen recessions and depressions since its founding, each with one thing in common: No matter how long they lasted, eventually each came to an end.