Proposal aims to create Discovery Corridor along I-5

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoDiscovery Corridor

Regional economic development leaders want to expand the boundaries of a highly conceptual business-oriented research park in north Clark County from roughly 100 acres near Washington State University Vancouver to 5,000 acres stretching from La Center to Salmon Creek.

Under the proposal to enlarge and rename the county’s state-designated “innovation partnership zone,” a local team of business, government and university leaders would focus on attracting a cluster of information technology companies into the geographic area that would be dubbed the Discovery Corridor. That area has few such jobs now, but economic development consultants are encouraging growth in information technology businesses near WSUV.

The Discovery Corridor plan doesn’t rezone property or hand out building permits. A big-picture concept, its goal is to focus the region’s economic development efforts, and attract public and private investment.

“By increasing the size of the zone, the quantity of prospective projects increases while maintaining a critical mass for development and research,” according to the Sept. 1 application submitted by area leaders to the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Jeanie Ashe, director of business recruitment for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, and Brent Grening, executive director of the Port of Ridgefield, traveled to Seattle on Tuesday to present the proposal to a group of state government officials who oversee economic development and workforce development programs.

Ashe said the state will decide whether to approve the Discovery Corridor plan by Oct. 1.

The county’s existing “innovation partnership zone” is one of 12 such districts statewide that have cropped up since 2007, when Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Legislature paved the way for them. They are intended to coordinate economic development efforts and to boost a region’s chances of winning state or federal grant money for projects.

Since then, a lack of state operating funds has “hampered the ability of all the (innovation partnership zones) to grow more rapidly,” according to a November 2010 report to the Legislature, and the “economic downturn significantly slowed the pace of progress.”

In Clark County, no money has been secured to breathe life into the zone. No projects have broken ground. That’s partly because the Columbia River Economic Development Council — the Vancouver-based business recruiter that’s spearheading the Discovery Corridor proposal — wasn’t selected to receive state grant money when the innovation districts were first set up four years ago.

The CREDC was among six agencies, including local governments and ports, in the state that received the zone designation but did not receive funding to help develop its district. Five others, including the Port of Bellingham and the city of Walla Walla, received both the designation and money.

Ashe said the timing is right to move forward with a new and much larger innovation zone. “It is really a perfect storm, because we have just completed our economic development strategy,” she said. “We’re going to be accountable to that, and we’re going to be reporting on that on a regular basis.”

The CREDC isn’t alone in applying for a new innovation zone, Ashe said. Other agencies are sending in proposals for new zones or applications to renew existing ones.

The Discovery Corridor concept is not new. The Port of Ridgefield has marketed the idea since 2001. A majority of the port district is located within the Discovery Corridor innovation zone.

When the CREDC won approval of an innovation zone in 2007, it was focused on building a high-tech research facility on about 100 acres near the Washington State University Vancouver campus.

That site would remain a part of the larger Discovery Corridor plan. Jennifer Miltenberger, director of development for WSUV, said the university is working on acquiring the property. “We do not have a signed agreement at this point,” she said. “We are working on that.”

Miltenberger said part of the university’s mission is to help link research and business innovation. And a research facility would strengthen Clark County’s economy, she said.

Under the new Discovery Corridor innovation zone, the CREDC, Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, Port of Ridgefield and WSU Vancouver would work together to obtain funding, and to build projects and infrastructure.

Efforts to develop the zone will focus on attracting information technology companies, including those in health information management, mobile applications and multimedia.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.