Bart Phillips announced on Monday he will resign from his job as president of Southwest Washington’s premier business recruitment group, after more than a decade at the Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council.
In recent months, the nonprofit that Phillips leads has faced unwelcome attention from the Port of Vancouver, county leaders, and others who have questioned the group’s recent track record. But it’s unclear whether those issues were behind his decision to depart the private nonprofit, which has a $1 million annual budget. It is funded through a mix of member dues and government grants.
When asked if there were any concerns with Phillips’ management, Kathy Sego, an owner of Sego’s Herb Farm in La Center and a CREDC board member, said no. It was, she said, “just a change in direction.”
Sego said she couldn’t comment on Phillips’ departure because the board had agreed at a Monday morning meeting to keep details confidential.
Phillips, who did not return phone calls or email messages for comment on Monday, will work through May 20, according to a press release issued by the Columbia River Economic Development Council. His annual salary at the nonprofit was approximately $150,000, according to tax filings.
Nine CREDC board members will form a task group to search for a new president, said Eric Fuller, board chair of the 130-member group.
Fuller said a replacement should be in place by no later than the end of this year. “We are going to take as long as it needs to take to find the right person for this community,” he said.
Lisa Nisenfeld, executive director of Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, will supervise daily operations of the nonprofit until then. Her organization shares office space, and some employees, with the CREDC, located at 805 Broadway, Vancouver.
Phillips tendered his resignation during a morning meeting of the economic development council’s 41-member board of directors, said Fuller, president of Vancouver-based Eric Fuller & Associates, a commercial real estate firm.
“He is pursuing other opportunities, and the board has accepted that,” Fuller said.
“It was a very hard discussion this morning,” Sego said. “He’s done a very good job for our community. I think he is going to be sorely missed. He has skills that won’t be easy to replace.”
Fuller listed membership growth among the accomplishments of Phillips, 55, who was hired in 2000 to lead the development group.
“Although we lost some members during the recession, we are at 130 members now and growing,” said Fuller, adding that he expects continued membership growth through the year.
During his tenure at the CREDC, Phillips also oversaw a successful period of economic development in the county, with commercial and residential development leading to thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment. A press release from the CREDC also credited Phillips with:
• Spearheading legislation to provide tax credits to polysilicon manufacturers (primarily SEH America in Vancouver).
• Lobbying to maintain state financing for economic development organizations during the height of the recession.
• Recruiting Bellevue-based PeaceHealth, which has announced plans to relocate its headquarters and bring 700 jobs to the region.
• Guiding the economic development council through a structural transition from its older membership-based funding model to an investor-based model.
“I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to contribute to my community and to have worked with so many public and private entities dedicated to improving the economy for the benefit of our neighbors,” Phillips said in a written statement. “Together we have made a difference.”
Phillips oversaw a staff of five employees in downtown Vancouver.
“He raised the level of the office to what I thought was a higher level, a very professionally oriented office,” said Royce Pollard, who served 14 years as Vancouver mayor, working with Phillips through much of that time.
“Bart was involved in almost every major business move, either in a leadership or supportive role,” Pollard said. “He wasn’t always in the forefront, but he was behind the scenes.”
Other community leaders recalled hiring Phillips in 2000 to lead the economic development council, founded in 1985.
“Actually, I was a member of the committee that hired him 11 years ago,” said Larry Paulson, executive director of the Port of Vancouver. “He is a very bright guy. He understands the economics of our community and of our state.”
However, Phillips’ efforts were thwarted by recession from the outset.
Among the CREDC’s hot recruits that are now long gone are dot-com company Egghead.com, which closed its Vancouver office and laid off nearly 200 workers in 2001, and trucking firm Consolidated Freightways, which brought 900 jobs to east Vancouver in 2000 and closed in 2002.
But the list of established recruits includes high-tech firms SEH America Inc., WaferTech, nLight, Furuno and C-Tech, companies that have attracted a cluster of similar businesses that add to local economic growth.
More recently, however, the Columbia River Economic Development Council’s strategic choices have come under scrutiny.
Paulson said he would have liked to see the CREDC put more focus on manufacturer’s and industry’s needs. “I think we’re very limited in this state for what we can offer manufacturing companies.”
Port of Vancouver leaders in November cut funding to the CREDC after expressing disappointment in the council’s efforts to create jobs. The port’s three-member board of elected commissioners voted 2-1 to lower the port’s annual CREDC investment from $40,000 in 2010 to $30,000 in 2011.
East Clark County government groups, meanwhile, have moved toward launching their own economic development organization in order to increase the focus on job needs in that part of the county. The new east county agency was not a sign of dissatisfaction, according to leaders of the Port of Camas-Washougal, who are involved in the effort, along with leaders of both cities.
Phillips, however, improved business development efforts during his tenure in Clark County, Paulson said. “He understood the difference between Oregon and Washington, and he brought more advocacy to the CREDC.”
Reporter Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.