PeaceHealth has new home in Clark County

Health care company relocating its headquarters to east Vancouver gives local economy, from housing to contractors to hospitality industry, much-needed boost

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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In the 18 months since PeaceHealth chose Vancouver to become its new corporate headquarters, the giant health care organization has more than made its presence felt.

The company’s ongoing move into Columbia Center at Columbia Tech Center, 1115 S.E. 164th Ave., provides a bright spot in an ailing local economy. Already, PeaceHealth has invested $8 million in remodeling its new space in east Vancouver, where it will eventually have capacity for as many as 1,000 employees.

Real estate brokers say the health care organization’s growth has helped boost an otherwise tough market by bringing hundreds of house-hunting workers -- and their families -- to the community. And experts say the company will help fill hotels and restaurants as it brings people in for events and conferences.

Longer term, local economic boosters say, PeaceHealth could drive additional job growth. And having a corporate headquarters relocate to your city is a rare event in a globalized economy in which it’s all too common for a company’s flagship to move away, according to Lisa Nisenfeld, president and CEO of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, the Vancouver-based nonprofit business recruiter.

“It’s very important,” she said of PeaceHealth coming to town. “It will give our community exposure we would not have had otherwise.”

A ‘critical mass’

As of this month, 214 PeaceHealth workers (170 from out of town, 44 from Vancouver-based PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center) have relocated to the third floor of the silver-skinned building that not long ago was sparsely populated. The building also harbors Hewlett-Packard Co., which relocated there in 2011. Another tenant -- Nautilus Inc. -- will leave for smaller quarters in September to make room for more PeaceHealth workers.

Another 86 PeaceHealth workers will move into the Columbia Center by the end of this year, for a total of 300 PeaceHealth workers filling roughly 109,000 square feet of space. That workforce will double to 600 by 2014 as PeaceHealth expands its third-floor footprint to about 160,000 square feet and welcomes more workers, most of whom are coming from other PeaceHealth sites, including Bellevue, Longview and Lane County, Ore.

At that point, the company will occupy about one-third of the 478,000-square-foot Columbia Center. That’s room enough for PeaceHealth to eventually add another 400 workers, for a total of 1,000 employees, including everyone from senior managers and information technologists to accounting and payroll staff, and supply chain and materials managers.

And, evidently, PeaceHealth plans to stay. It signed a 10-year lease agreement with PacTrust, which manages Columbia Tech Center, that includes an option to purchase Columbia Center, according to Eric Fuller, president of Vancouver-based Eric Fuller & Associates Inc., the commercial real estate firm that brokered the deal to put PeaceHealth at Columbia Center.

The Catholic-sponsored nonprofit ultimately chose the east Vancouver site over its other local option, the 10-story Bank of America Financial Center at 805 Broadway in downtown Vancouver.

Health care changes

In a time when Clark County’s economy still feels adrift (its jobless rate is 11 percent, and it netted just 900 jobs in the 12 months ending in February), local economic boosters hope PeaceHealth becomes an anchor.

Nisenfeld, the economic development council chief, envisions a “critical mass,” in which PeaceHealth will act as a magnet to attract a cluster of software firms and branch offices that support the nonprofit health care company’s initiatives and growth.

With independent hospitals becoming less the norm, Nisenfeld said, she can see PeaceHealth acquiring other health care companies to drive its expansion.

Well before it decided where to put down roots in Vancouver, PeaceHealth was changing the dynamics of health care in the region. In December 2010 -- after months of negotiations with Southwest Washington Medical Center -- PeaceHealth officially became the new corporate parent of Southwest, ending the hospital’s independence.

The newly dubbed PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center -- a hospital campus at Northeast Mother Joseph Place -- remains a significant employer in the area, with 3,567 people on staff. And PeaceHealth’s local workforce will only grow as more of its out-of-town employees move into Columbia Center.

Overall, the merger of PeaceHealth -- which has medical facilities in Washington, Oregon and Alaska -- and Southwest Washington Medical Center created a nonprofit health system with roughly 15,000 employees, eight hospitals and nearly $2 billion in revenues.

Making plans

The deal cemented PeaceHealth’s plan to consolidate its headquarters and back-office operations in Vancouver into what it describes as a “shared services center.” The idea was to bring everyone who contributes to PeaceHealth’s administration under one roof for efficiency’s sake, to build teamwork and, eventually, to grow.

The consolidation has meant moving hundreds of PeaceHealth employees (or caregivers, as they’re known to the organization) to the nonprofit’s new home base.

Melissa Solberg, 28, was among the first to move. A human resources information system analyst for PeaceHealth, she relocated from Bellevue to Vancouver. But she’s no stranger to the metro area, having grown up in Gresham, Ore.

Solberg and her husband have a 17-month-old son, Owen, Solberg said, and she’s impressed with Vancouver’s schools, and its parks and recreation programs. The city’s farmers market is a big plus, too, she said.

The relocation came during a busy time in Solberg’s life; Owen was just 6 months old at the time, and her husband was scheduled for gall bladder surgery -- but PeaceHealth offered seamless support, she said.

“They took care of everything,” said Solberg, who’s worked for the nonprofit since 2006.

‘A very bright spot’

PeaceHealth officials have said they plan to branch out into the community in different ways, from expanding Southwest’s family practice and residency training to teaming with Clark College to develop training programs for health care workers.

While PeaceHealth makes plans, its move to Vancouver has generated immediate impacts.

Twenty-four subcontractors in the Portland-Vancouver metro area, including six in Clark County, earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work on PeaceHealth’s initial $8 million remodeling project.

Cherry City Electric, an electrical contractor based in Salem, Ore. with an office in Vancouver, received a $1.36 million contract to handle the electrical work that went into the first phase of PeaceHealth’s reconstruction of its space at Columbia Center.

“We want to ensure people who work for us can feed their families,” said Keith Knight, vice president of business development for Cherry City Electric, and that’s what happened on the PeaceHealth project.

Rick LeBlanc, a Vancouver-based Realtor with John L. Scott Real Estate, is helping relocate PeaceHealth employees to Vancouver and has already worked with several clients.

Some PeaceHealth workers have had difficulty selling their homes because of the housing market’s overall weakness, LeBlanc said. But he said he expects the market will gradually loosen and, by mid-2013, the impact of PeaceHealth employees purchasing homes in Clark County will be more noticeable.

What’s important, LeBlanc said, is that people are becoming more mobile again and willing to relocate. That wasn’t the case for several years after the economic crash, he said.

And to have workers and their families moving into Clark County is “a very bright spot, not only from the real estate standpoint but for the whole community,” LeBlanc said.

Fuller, the commercial real estate broker, said PeaceHealth informed city of Vancouver officials that its quarterly meetings and workshops will fill 2,000 hotel and motel room-nights annually.

“That’s a very significant increase,” Fuller said.

More work planned

Inside Columbia Center, visitors take a grand staircase up to PeaceHealth’s expansive third-floor space. Its features include dark woodwork, generous windows, a chapel, lounges, long walkways and kitchens with soft, pendant lighting.

Pamela Saftler, a senior associate with TVA Architects Inc. in Portland, which designed PeaceHealth’s new corporate headquarters and support offices, said the nonprofit was specific about what it wanted.

“They wanted a place that feels warm and inviting,” she said. “Bringing the natural woods in was really important.”

And PeaceHealth isn’t finished remaking its new home.

Gary Hall, system director of facilities and construction for PeaceHealth, said the nonprofit plans to invest $3.5 million in remodeling the space being vacated by Nautilus.

Knight of Cherry City Electric wants to continue being a part of PeaceHealth’s plans.

“Anything that has to do with PeaceHealth,” he said, “we will be bidding on.”

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