Analysis targets Clark County economic growth

By Aaron Corvin and Gordon Oliver

Published:

Updated: June 16, 2011, 8:04 PM

 

Clark County’s economy could recover from the historic crash of recent years with a new era of prosperity built on employment growth in information technology, health care and trade, a Texas-based consulting firm says in an exhaustive report issued Thursday in draft form.

But 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, TIP Strategies Inc. of Austin, Texas, concluded in the 127-page report. The county should consider bold new ideas, including working with Washington State University Vancouver to create a business-oriented research park, that could require some form of new taxes, the consultants said.

“It is clear that Clark County’s economic development partners cannot afford to be anything but aggressive,” TIP Strategies concluded in the report, commissioned for $80,000 by the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

A time of transition

The analysis is the first complete review of the Clark County’s economy since 2001. It arrives at a time of transition in the county’s leadership and structure on economic development issues. Bart Phillips, who headed the economic development council when it hired TIP Strategies in October 2010, left the nonprofit agency in May. Identity Clark County also has a new leader in Paul Montague, who replaced the recently retired Ginger Metcalf.

In east Clark County, a new publicly funded economic development agency is emerging under the leadership of former Camas Mayor Paul Dennis. Even WSUV, which plays a central role in the report’s recommendations, is going through a leadership transition with the announcement this week that Hal Dengerink will retire from the post of chancellor, which he’s held since the campus was established in 1989.

The study also comes as the county struggles with high unemployment and anemic job growth. The county’s jobless rate for March was 13 percent

Performance measures included

The Clark County Economic Development Plan released Thursday repeatedly notes the importance of cooperation and information sharing among local governments, ports and economic development groups. “For this economic development plan to succeed … there must be a wider acceptance that success in one area of the county benefits all,” consultants wrote. “In other words, this study is not intended just for the CREDC, but also for the political entities, businesses and citizens of the county.”

The study lays out numerous actions for Clark County to take to rebuild its economy. It assigns responsibility for those actions to local and regional institutions. It provides a time frame under which the actions should be taken. And it lists performance metrics to measure the county’s success, including the amount of new business investment, assessed value of developed land, average annual pay and median household income.

For example, the study recommends the county develop a business-oriented research park, assigning WSUV and the Columbia River Economic Development Council — among other institutions — to the task.

Certain steps, such as purchasing the land for a research park, could take up to 24 months to complete. Other steps, such as pursuing state and federal grants to assist in setting up the park, could take up to three to five years, according to the study.

One strategy to pay for “infrastructure development” at the proposed research park would be to use proceeds from Clark County’s real estate excise tax.

Though TIP Strategies offers suggestions, local leaders still have to decide which recommended projects to pursue, and how to fund them. “We do not have a clear strategy of who the partners would be or how the funding should work,” said Eric Fuller, a commercial real estate broker with Eric Fuller & Associates Inc. in Vancouver and board chairman for the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Fuller said figuring out those issues is among the next steps that need to be taken as regional leaders seek to implement the plan rolled out by the consultants.

Lynn Valenter, WSUV’s interim chancellor, said that establishing a research park would take time and perhaps have to be done in phases, since WSUV has not yet reached critical mass as an institution. That idea, and others in the report, will also have to be vetted by the university’s leaders, she said.

“All of these things are feasible, but they are very complex and they take time,” Valenter said.

Strengths and weaknesses

The report highlights as strengths the county’s growing health care sector, diversified business base, absence of a state income tax, a strong regional technology base, the region’s appeal to educated young workers, and a strong transportation network including ports, rail, Portland International Airport and highways. It said Washington State University and, to a lesser extent Clark College, can play a critical role in building a stronger economic foundation.

“To fully realize their potential impact on Clark County’s economic competitiveness, (WSUV and Clark College) must be deeply woven into the county’s economic strategy,” the consultants wrote.

Valenter, WSUV’s interim chancellor, said the university’s mission aligns with the consultants’ recommendations for WSUV to directly respond to the community’s economic needs.

“The recognition of WSUV as a research institution, and that part of what research institutions do is help drive local economic development, is wonderful,” she said. “On the larger level, it’s kind of a perfect match.”

On the other side of the ledger, the consultants said the county suffers from chronic high unemployment, an aging inventory of office buildings and a relatively small share of college graduates. It also lacks its own identity within the Portland metropolitan area and the Northwest.

“This is an appeal for a fresh look at marketing and positioning, captured not through tag lines, but through a better understanding of what attracts people to Clark County and what business growth would help keep them local,” the consultants wrote.

The study identifies “prosperity” as an essential principle undergirding economic development in Clark County, adding that it “cannot be measured solely by the traditional metric of job creation.

“In fact, lower wage service sector jobs can imbalance an economy. They are necessary and desirable only as a component of greater gains in overall prosperity — measured by increases in assessed valuation and steadily rising incomes.”

Aaron Corvin: 360-735-4518 or aaron.corvin@columbian.com.

Gordon Oliver: 360-735-4699 or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.