CREDC’s new director has experience, vision to guide economic development

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Lisa Nisenfeld is the new president and CEO of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, but she’s no stranger to the organization.

Before the CREDC board’s unanimous Sept. 22 decision to hire her full time, Nisenfeld had been serving as interim president.

The Vancouver-based nonprofit, comprised of 125 members representing the private and public sectors, was established in 1982 with the aim of recruiting businesses and creating jobs.

Its mission has perhaps never been more important in light of a Clark County economy sagging under the weight of a 12.7 percent unemployment rate.

Nisenfeld steps into the job with plenty of experience in economic and workforce development. For the past seven years, she has served as executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.

Nisenfeld started her new job as chief of the CREDC on Oct. 1, but she continues to oversee the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council until a successor is found.

She also has led her own consulting firm specializing in strategic planning and workforce development, and was director of workforce and target industries at the Portland Development Commission.

Nisenfeld succeeds Bart Phillips, who stepped down on May 20 after leading the CREDC for more than a decade.

The work ahead of her as the new chief of the CREDC is daunting.

She is tasked with implementing the 127-page Clark County Economic Development Plan. The plan, commissioned by the CREDC for $80,000, calls on the county to take a new path toward employment growth built on information technology, health care and international trade.

Those who were involved in selecting Nisenfeld say she possesses the comprehensive communication and technical skills necessary to get the job done.

“She’s an aggregator,” said Mark Lampton, a Port of Camas-Washougal commissioner who served on the CREDC’s search committee. “She really has the ability to look around the room to see where the strengths are and where you can take it.”

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

What are three things that make you hopeful and optimistic about Clark County’s economic prospects in the months and years ahead?

The first is our highly skilled workforce. We know from companies who are here that our workers have some of the best work ethic and production skills anywhere.

Another thing is the way this community pulls together to make things happen. I think sometimes we take that for granted, but it doesn’t happen everywhere, and it means that as long as we work together anything is possible.

And there are companies here who are expanding their product lines and looking for new ways to participate in a future economy. That gives me a lot of hope that innovation is going on, and that there will be more of that.

What are three things that make you pessimistic — that make you worry about the county’s economic prospects?

Our unemployment rate continues to be about 50 percent higher than the rest of the state and the rest of the Portland metropolitan area, so we run some risk of waiting to see what will happen with the economy rather than jumping into it in a more assertive way.

Obviously, national conditions are not encouraging right now. I went to Dr. Raha’s speech (state economist Arun Raha delivered a forecast in Vancouver on Oct. 19), and the L-shaped economy is certainly something for us to worry about.

Having capital to reinvest in companies and innovation are very important pieces of the puzzle.

What does the Columbia River Economic Development Council bring to the table to help make things better?

The CREDC’s main calling is one of leadership, and that leadership is to find every available resource in the area to assist our businesses to grow, and that means working very closely together with the ports, with other cities, with educational institutions at all levels, and with statewide resources such as Impact Washington (a nonprofit that aims to help manufacturers compete globally), and with our resources across the river in the Portland metropolitan area.

Our calling is to gather up those resources and connect businesses to them at the right time. You know, short of being able to print money, I think we’re going out and helping those companies create more value.

What can you tell me about how the CREDC will work with the new Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, which some might view as a competitor to you?

We welcome the local advocacy that the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association brings to the economic development enterprise. It is very helpful for the CREDC to have an economic development professional to work with in the eastern portion of the county, especially one with the skills and background of Paul Dennis (former mayor of Camas, and now president and CEO of Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association). We are looking forward to working on many successful projects together.

Is there an employer in Clark County that you see as a model for others to follow in achieving success, in demonstrating resiliency in a tough economy?

(Vancouver-based) Christensen Shipyards is a good example. I know about them because we helped fund them at the Workforce Development Council in doing their lean training (“lean manufacturing” calls for the maximization of value for customers and the elimination of waste) with Impact Washington.

Christensen is a company that had laid off the bulk of its workforce because luxury yachts were not going well in the recession. They were able to start looking around at other opportunities that would use their core competencies in composites and would take advantage of the type of facility they have which can accommodate a 180-foot yacht and can also accommodate things like windmill blades. So they were able to take a look at those things and take some risks, and they’re still working on what their exact niche in the market is, but they’ve identified renewable energy as a place where they can be a player. At the same time they looked at their existing manufacturing of yachts and did the lean training on that side as well, and were able to shave off a significant percentage of costs so they could be more globally competitive.

What books are you reading?

I was an English major in college, and right now I’m reading a historical novel about Queen Matilda. It’s called “Lady of the English” (by Elizabeth Chadwick). Before that I read “Daughters-in-Law” (by Joanna Trollope).

What’s your favorite movie?

I have always loved “The Lion in Winter,” particularly Katharine Hepburn’s performance of a women beset by adversity but keeping her humor about her.