City officials in La Center cannot be blamed for having dollar signs in their eyes when they think about Interstate 5 in north Clark County. The freeway’s intersection with Northwest 319th Street is only about two miles west of downtown La Center. That’s why the intersection is informally called the “La Center Junction.”
Unfortunately for the city, however, that nickname is the only benefit it derives from the freeway. And as any city budget writer will attest, nicknames won’t help a municipality survive the economic crisis (in the short term) or realize its full potential in economic development (in the long term).
All of that could change in a couple of weeks when the La Center City Council meets to decide on a 471-acre annexation that would give the city its long-coveted, revenue-producing presence on I-5. The 7 p.m. meeting on Sept. 14 at 214 E. Fourth St. in La Center will include a public hearing where residents can give their opinions on the proposed annexation.
City officials are commended for aggressively pursuing this annexation and securing approval signatures from owners of 60 percent of the annexed property’s $22.8 million value. That enabled the Clark County Assessor’s Office to give its stamp of approval to the process.
La Center leaders wisely believe in diversifying the economy for its 2,800 residents. Currently, the city derives more than half of its general-fund revenue from local card rooms. Four years ago, La Center Mayor Jim Irish said, “We have no industrial district and a limited commercial district. Like other cities, we need a varied source of revenue.” He was right then, and he was right this week when he told The Columbian’s Ray Legendre: “We’ve been trying for seven years to get out to the junction, and we finally made it.” If approved, the proposed annexation would give the city of La Center its first industrial lands, where the city could generate revenue from property taxes and sales taxes. Another significant benefit would be job creation. The retail business potential of this intersection is enhanced by the fact that it’s about five miles each from Woodland and Ridgefield, 10 miles from Salmon Creek and 12 miles from Battle Ground.
La Center wants nothing more than what Ridgefield has had for years: a revenue-rich presence on what industrial and commercial developers call the “Discovery Corridor.” Ridgefield’s downtown core is three miles from I-5, yet the city limits include a mile and a half on the freeway. La Center, by comparison, is only two miles from I-5. As Legendre reported, residents in the annexation area would not be required to connect to city water or sewer lines. But in anticipation of this westward movement, La Center has upgraded its wastewater treatment facility in recent years, spending $13 million in the past year and half to increase the capacity to 3 million gallons of water per day.
This annexation would have virtually nothing to do with the proposed Cowlitz tribal casino at the northwest corner of the same intersection. La Center officials are looking for nontribal, private-sector revenue that would come through industrial and commercial development.
In a way, we wonder why La Center hasn’t made it to the freeway before now. Part of the answer is a long series of complex debates about urban growth. But there’s nothing complicated about La Center’s right to generate revenue from — and create jobs at — the I-5 intersection that bears the same name.