Speakers seek to jolt Clark County economy

Business leaders promote targeting of building sites, education as keys

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoScott Keeney
photoLisa Nisenfeld

Student minds and vacant lots could play key roles in getting Clark County’s economy back into growth mode.

But it will take hard work and collaboration to get businesses to build on the county’s land and prepare students for the jobs of the future, two Clark County business leaders said Thursday.

Lisa Nisenfeld, president and CEO of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, and Scott Keeney, president and CEO of Vancouver-based nLight, spoke at CREDC’s fourth-quarter event, held at the Hilton Vancouver Washington with about 250 people in attendance.

Partnerships and collaboration will be key to developing a strong Clark County, the two said in speeches that covered different, but overlapping, topics.

“We are in this together,” Nisenfeld said. “We need to get our community back on its feet.”

Said Keeney: “We all have to support our education system.”

‘Lands for jobs’

Nisenfeld, whose background is in economic and workforce development, officially took the reins at the Columbia River Economic Development Council on Oct. 1, after serving as the agency’s interim leader for several months. The Vancouver-based nonprofit, composed of 125 members representing the private and public sectors, launched in 1982 with the aim of recruiting businesses and creating jobs.

The group is pursuing its mission as the county struggles with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate and weak job growth. It also has a new path to follow: The Clark County Economic Development Plan, commissioned by the CREDC for $80,000, calls for new employment growth based on key sectors, including information technology, health care and international trade.

“Like dogs chasing cars, now that we’ve got one,” Nisenfeld said of the plan, “now what?”

One answer is to install infrastructure and make property in the county ready to build on for prospective employers — as quickly as possible, she said.

Nisenfeld said a CREDC-backed “lands for jobs” initiative that examined key buildable parcels in the county shows there are 70 sites of 20 acres or more. But of those, only 13 could reasonably be made ready for development within 18 months.

Nisenfeld said 18 months or more is too long to make potential building sites attractive to prospective employers. As a result, she said, state and federal building permit processes must change to become “less capricious and more predictable.”

To build demand for a business-oriented research park, Nisenfeld said, the CREDC is investigating the possibility of joint research projects between local companies and WSU Vancouver.

Nisenfeld said WSU Vancouver, especially with its new Engineering and Computer Science building, could act as a research and development arm for area businesses.

‘You can help’

Education loomed large for Keeney, whose company, nLight, employs more than 400 people and has grown through the tough recession years, in part, by advancing its highly specialized laser tools.

And Keeney is the founder of the nonprofit nConnect, which aims to encourage high school students to take on more rigorous studies, such as Advanced Placement courses, to prepare them to become leaders and innovators in the global economy.

Citing data gathered by nConnect, Keeney said that when high school students take more rigorous classes in math, for example, they “compare well to international students.”

There were nConnect fliers on attendees’ tables asking them to check boxes next to volunteer activities they’d be willing to participate in to support students. “You can help,” Keeney said, adding that “every little bit helps.”