Camas mayor stepping down to take new position

Paul Dennis will lead east county economic development group

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After leading Camas for almost eight years, Mayor Paul Dennis will vacate his seat in the coming weeks to head economic development efforts in east Clark County, he said Tuesday.

Dennis and his private consulting firm — Cascade Planning Group — have been selected to lead the new Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, which is still being established by the Port of Camas-Washougal and the cities of Camas and Washougal.

Dennis would serve as economic development director of the new agency and his firm would provide its services under a contract paid for by the port and the two cities. The annual budget of the new agency, aimed at pumping up jobs in east Clark County, is estimated at $175,000. Port and city leaders must still approve the final deal, which is expected to happen during public hearings in early June.

Dennis, who has two decades of experience as an economic development consultant, described the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association as “a unique opportunity that fits within my career path.” The organization will be beneficial to residents, he added, because “it will maintain the existing business base, as well as recruit new businesses.”

Dennis’ decision to accept the offer to run the east Clark County economic development association necessitated he step down as mayor to avoid a conflict of interest as mayor.

Dennis said he played no role in the three governments’ planning for the new regional entity. Likewise, he said, he will not take part in any final decisions to formally establish it.

Dennis will leave the mayor’s office at the end of May or early June, he said. Camas Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Higgins will assume the position until the city’s council makes a formal appointment.

Several steps must be taken before the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, under development for about a year, becomes reality.

The cities of Camas and Washougal, and the Port of Camas-Washougal are expected to sign an interlocal agreement laying out their roles in making the agency work. The port, which has led efforts to consolidate economic development efforts in east Clark County, is expected to hammer out a professional services contract with Cascade Planning Group. Vancouver-based E.D. Hovee & Company will play a supporting role in the economic development group.

On May 23, the port will lead a joint work session with the city councils of Camas and Washougal to figure out key details of how the new agency will operate. The city councils are slated to sign off on the agency during their regular public hearings on June 6. The port’s board of commissioners is expected to finalize its part in the deal on June 7.

The effort to create the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association intensified late last year when the Port of Camas-Washougal cut Scot Walstra’s position as director of port planning and development.

The port’s action routed funding for Walstra’s position — $82,000, plus benefits — to the new regional entity. In total, the port and the two cities have allocated $200,000 to pay for the agency, with the port setting aside $100,000, and the cities each kicking in $50,000.

The move to create a separate economic development agency for east county comes as the county’s chief jobs promoter — the Columbia River Economic Development Council — searches for a new president and CEO. Bart Phillips, the current head of the CREDC, plans to step down May 20.

David Ripp, executive director of the Port of Camas-Washougal, said creation of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association should not be taken as a criticism of the CREDC, nor should it be taken as a duplication of that agency’s services.

In addition to promoting job growth in Clark County, the CREDC also lobbies at the state and federal government levels, Ripp said. The new regional agency won’t engage in lobbying efforts, focusing instead on helping existing businesses in east county and on bringing new companies there.

Ripp said he expects the new agency will work in partnership with the CREDC.

“We’re not upset” with the CREDC,” Ripp said. “The CREDC is focused on Clark County, and Clark County is very large. and we want to be more site specific and have something focused totally on east Clark County.”

Dennis won out over two other finalists for the new job, Ripp said. The review of applications included input from Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes. An interview panel, staffed by six area government leaders, including Ripp, was unanimous in selecting Dennis, Ripp said.

Dennis’ Cascade Planning Group has done work for local governments and private companies across the U.S., including in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana. That work has included everything from helping Samsung Electronics find a suitable site for a new facility to consulting with ports on the highest and best use of their properties.

Dennis’ firm also has done work for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, including an analysis of the jobs and tax revenue impacts of Farwest Steel’s planned fabrication plant at the Port of Vancouver.

Dennis said he’s not sure whether he’ll continue to do work for the CREDC in light of that agency’s search for a new leader.

As to his plans for the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, Dennis said he’s interested in establishing a business advisory group that would help guide the new agency’s decisions to make sure they’re in the best interests of the east county business community. He said that he’s also thinking about setting up a community investment fund in which east county’s venture capitalists and angel investors could pool money to loan to startups and existing companies that want to expand.

“I’ve seen it successfully done in other areas of the U.S.,” Dennis said.

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard spoke highly of Dennis’ business acumen and expressed confidence his Camas counterpart would aid Washougal in retaining and expanding businesses within the city.

Camas officials credited Dennis with shepherding the city’s population and business growth the past decade.

Dennis joined the Camas City Council in 1997. At that point, the city had 9,500 residents. The city’s population has since ballooned to 19,355, according to the most recent U.S. census.

Camas also has opened its doors to several businesses, including Lightfleet, Plexis, Logitech and Fisher Investments.

During Dennis’ watch, the city also has had major infrastructure improvements, including Lake Road and First Avenue, expansions of the city’s wastewater treatment plant and development of new parks, City Administrator Lloyd Halverson said.

“It’s an obvious fit,” Halverson said of Dennis’ new job, noting he had a “record of achievement.”

Camas council member Higgins praised Dennis for having “guided us through difficult economic times.” The mayor’s skill set helped open economic doors, Higgins added. And that same skill set will play well in his new role.

“I expect it to be very successful,” Higgins said. “I think the timing is right. The economy has been slowly starting to turn around.”