What follows Phillips?

CREDC chief gone, raising questions about future of economic development

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

Published:

 

o In June, the Columbia River Economic Development Council is expected to release a new countywide economic development strategic plan. The plan, written by Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies Inc., is the first "complete new look" at the county's economy since 2001, according to Bart Phillips, former head of the development council.

Clark County is making room for more and different players in the game of schmoozing CEOs, dangling tax incentives and luring capital investment — otherwise known as economic development.

In the eastern part of the county, the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association is about to be born.

In the county’s northern outposts, leaders are talking about establishing their own regional economic development entity.

Meanwhile, the county’s veteran jobs promoter — the Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council — is searching for a new director. The nonprofit’s president, Bart Phillips, stepped down May 20 after 11 years with the 130-member organization.

Battle Ground Mayor Michael Ciraulo describes all the changes as “the evolution of economic development in Clark County.” But a big question hangs over it all, he said. “Can we work in collaboration, or are we all going our separate ways?”

Veteran leader out

A major change in the county’s economic development structure came May 2 when Phillips announced his resignation from the top staff job at the CREDC. Did he want to leave? Was he pushed out?

Phillips, who, with his chevron-shaped mustache, looks the part of an Old West town sheriff, is mostly mum.

o In June, the Columbia River Economic Development Council is expected to release a new countywide economic development strategic plan. The plan, written by Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies Inc., is the first “complete new look” at the county’s economy since 2001, according to Bart Phillips, former head of the development council.

“There’s always a time to leave,” he said recently over coffee at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

The 55-year-old Phillips has his critics and admirers.

Ciraulo, Battle Ground’s mayor, said Phillips’ personality clashed with those of the city’s elected leaders. On the “rare occasion” Phillips would come to city council meetings, Ciraulo said, “it wasn’t necessarily in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”

Roughly four or five years ago, Ciraulo said, the Battle Ground City Council, feeling left out of the CREDC’s plans, dropped its membership to the agency.

Ciraulo said that before the city left the CREDC he asked Phillips to name one business he brought to Battle Ground. “He couldn’t give me one example,” Ciraulo said.

Roger Qualman, executive vice president at NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson Real Estate in Vancouver, extolled Phillips’ abilities and accomplishments.

Phillips led the recruitment of DollarTree stores, for example, landing the company’s new Pacific Northwest distribution facility in Ridgefield, said Qualman, a member of the CREDC.

Phillips was collaborative, Qualman said. He did a “superb job.”

Qualman said Phillips was a victim of a bad economy in which people look for someone to blame for not making things better. “When there’s not much going on, people look for scapegoats,” Qualman said, “and there’s not much going on.”

Qualman said Phillips deserves credit for recruiting a branch of Fisher Investments to Clark County and was “very effective working with PeaceHealth. There’s a lot of other cities that would have killed to have those firms.”

Victories and losses

Others split their comments about Phillips somewhere between criticism and admiration.

Port of Vancouver Commissioner Brian Wolfe, a member of the CREDC and a former chairman of the agency, said Phillips is “a consummate professional and a really wonderful technician.” However, Wolfe said, “there was a sense that his communication skills, his ability to draw people together to do collaborative things, wasn’t what it could be.”

Paul Dennis, who is stepping down as mayor of Camas to head up the proposed Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, echoed Wolfe’s assessment.

One common criticism was that Phillips needed to step up his communication with the local government members of the CREDC, Dennis said. “A lot of public agencies felt like they weren’t being fully involved in the different business opportunities out there.”

Phillips had been working on this issue, Dennis said, but other CREDC members just “felt like it didn’t go far enough.

“Bart was very good technically,” Dennis added. “Everyone recognized that. I think the (CREDC) board was looking for someone who had just more well-rounded communication skills.”

Asked about this, Phillips remains laconic: “There always needs to be more communication.”

The CREDC board hopes to find a successor to Phillips no later than the end of this year.

‘I love the game’

Ask Phillips about his tenure with the CREDC — about his wins, losses and experiences — and he opens up. He’s proud of the tax credits for which he successfully lobbied the state Legislature to help SEH America in Vancouver expand.

A 2006 study connected 10,000 family-wage jobs, $539 million in annual wages and another 20,000 spin-off jobs with work done by the development council.

Phillips regrets not getting Clark County a piece of the solar-manufacturing action that Oregon managed to own. Oregon had the taste for incentives, he said; Washington didn’t. “All of the projects that went to Oregon were our clients,” Phillips said. “I just wanted one.”

Not that Phillips didn’t try to sell the Legislature on some “bold legislation,” as he puts it, including a mix of sales tax credits that companies could have sold to other companies, and business-and-occupation tax breaks.

The Legislature balked.

“We don’t have a history of incentives,” Phillips said, adding that they go “against our populist roots.”

Phillips talked excitedly about the ins and outs of economic development. In Clark County, it was about persuading the heads of multinational corporations to build up their plants in Vancouver rather than their other branches across the world.

It was about cold-calling companies.

It was about fielding calls from interested CEOs.

It involved feeding brokers who deal in corporate site selection with details about Clark County and purchasing lists from those brokers of companies that might be interested in moving here.

Dinners with business leaders in Vancouver. Visits to Europe and China to build relationships. All in the service of making the business case, landing the money, grabbing the jobs.

As to his experiences overseas, Phillips has a warning for Clark County, not to mention the United States.

While the U.S. debates whether global climate change is real, he said, “China and others are looking at sustainability and global warming” as opportunities to bring market solutions to those problems.

Phillips, who’s worked in economic development since 1981, clearly had a blast leading the CREDC. At the end of his tenure with the development council, his annual salary was approximately $150,000, according to tax filings.

Phillips said he sees himself moving on to bigger and more challenging stuff in the same arena. “I love the game,” he said.

New organization crops up

In Clark County, the economic-development game is getting more complex as regional leaders form new alliances.

In June, the Port of Camas-Washougal and the cities of Camas and Washougal are expected to formally establish the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association.

Dennis, the Camas mayor who’s leaving his post to lead the new group, and his private consulting firm — Cascade Planning Group — have been selected to lead the agency.

Will it compete or collaborate with the CREDC? Should the new agency be taken as a form of criticism of the 29-year-old CREDC?

The answers depend on whom you ask.

David Ripp, executive director of the Port of Camas-Washougal, has said the east Clark County agency will cooperate with the CREDC. From Ripp’s perspective, the CREDC is a countywide group. By contrast, the new agency will focus exclusively on helping businesses in east county and on bringing new companies there.

Others see it differently.

Roger Daniels, a longtime Washougal resident and retired Clark College administrator, spoke during the May 23 workshop held by the Port of Camas-Washougal and the cities of Camas and Washougal to discuss the new regional agency.

Daniels said it was important for the county’s two easternmost cities to be part of a separate economic development organization. “We’ve been the poor stepchild,” he said. “With the CREDC, I didn’t feel we got the kind of attention we deserved and needed.”

Ciraulo, the Battle Ground mayor, said the development council’s “Vancouver-centric” bent was a driving force behind his city’s decision to drop its membership.

He said Battle Ground, the cities of Ridgefield and La Center, and the Port of Ridgefield are interested in forming a north county economic-development alliance, similar to the one that cropped up in east county.

“We’re having similar discussions, although nothing formal yet has occurred,” Ciraulo said.

While Vancouver is important — and the business retention and recruitment work the CREDC does also is valuable — “we (also) have a lot to offer in these smaller cities,” Ciraulo said.

Clark County’s competitors are cities such as Portland and Seattle and Los Angeles, Ciraulo said. And those are reasons for new and old economic-development organizations in Clark County to work together. “We’re not in competition with Vancouver,” Ciraulo added, “but we do have a lot to offer in collaboration.”

Reporters Cami Joner and Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.

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

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