Two fewer to cook up a recovery

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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I sometimes wonder if Clark County has too many cooks trying to fix its economic broth. Now two master chefs are about to leave the kitchen.

Those departures — Bart Phillips is resigning from the Columbia River Economic Development Council and Ginger Metcalf will retire from Identity Clark County — will create immediate challenges for the organizations that they head.

Since joining the economic development council in 2000, Phillips has helped recruit dozens of employers and thousands of local jobs — though many of those jobs have evaporated in more recent years.

In our “what have you done for me lately” world, Clark County’s 12.9 percent jobless rate overshadows those victories, and I’ve heard grumbling about the Columbia River Economic Development Council for months. But the nonprofit has kept at it, and played a role in Sapa Extrusion’s recent decision to bring 100 jobs to the Port of Vancouver.

Identity Clark County, meanwhile, focuses on government actions and transportation, often lobbying on behalf of area business interests. Identity Clark County has had a relatively low public profile in recent years, though its backing of the “Land Here, Live Here” marketing campaign helped spur regional adoption that’s spread through the greater Portland metro area. These two groups occupy a crowded realm. We’ve got port districts working to spur job growth in Vancouver, Ridgefield, Woodland and at the Port of Camas-Washougal. Then there’s the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, which offers training aimed at meeting the needs of future employers. The Small Business Development Center helps startups and other companies develop strategies to grow to the next level. Volunteer-run SCORE counsels small-business owners by connecting them with retired executives. That’s just in Clark County—and doesn’t include neighborhood-based groups that look out for the interests of businesses downtown, along Fourth Plain, and in other areas.

A number of other organizations do similar work from the Oregon side of the Portland-metro area — some focused on Portland, some on Oregon, and some on the entire region.

There are advantages to this hodgepodge. Each group specializes in a different approach to strengthening the region’s economy, and that specialized attention allows each to delve deep into the needs of its constituents.

But for small businesses looking to grow, or large ones that might want to relocate here, the number of different organizations available to help can be mind-boggling. And who do we blame when the entire system fails, or congratulate when it succeeds, if one group is in charge of coordinating the entire effort?

Our broth may need some salt, but if each cook adds a tablespoon, the resulting stew will make everyone cringe. With Phillips and Metcalf planning to go, will we find two new cooks to replace them? Or is it time to consider a master chef to coordinate and direct Clark County’s efforts to cook up an economic recovery.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.