Vancouver port makes room for jobs and nature

Port aims to attract tenants with Centennial Industrial Park

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
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Building a massive new network of rail tracks to boost business isn't the only project that the Port of Vancouver has its eye on these days.

A landlord to its core, the port is stepping up efforts to persuade employers to set up shop at the 58-acre portion of its 108-acre, light-industrial-zoned Centennial Industrial Park.

To that end, the port recently secured a $5.75 million grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. It will use the money to dress up the parcel with sidewalks, roadways, utilities and landscaping -- infrastructure that's attractive to companies.

The port hopes to have those improvements in place by the middle of next year. It already has an agreement with the city of Vancouver outlining the site's development standards, which support manufacturing, warehouse and office uses. The 58-acre portion of the industrial park has been designed to provide about 550,000 square feet of building space -- four times the space in Fred Meyer's Grand Central store.

There's also an environmental twist to the port's effort to market the Centennial property: Whomever moves into the site will practically have a front-row view of a port-owned 154-acre wetland -- a former dairy farm that's being transformed into habitat for waterfowl, song birds and other species.

Port officials estimate the 58-acre Centennial parcel has the capacity to support some 500 jobs. "We're anxious, certainly, to get this rolling," said Curtis Shuck, the port's director of economic development and facilities.

Parcel on key list

The port's work on the Centennial acreage is part of a larger regional effort to offer more shovel-ready land to employers. Spearheaded by the Columbia River Economic Development Council -- the Vancouver-based nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter -- the effort seeks to build up Clark County's inventory of land zoned for industry.

The CREDC's "land for jobs" analysis identified 13 sites of 20 acres or more that could be developed for job-creating purposes within a year and a half.

The Centennial parcel is on that list. Now, economic boosters are trying to move it onto the radars of ready-to-build employers. "We've got some leads we're working with," Shuck said, adding the property would make a good fit for a high-tech manufacturing company.

The Centennial property actually encompasses 108 acres, with 58 acres ready for development and with 50 acres nearby that are available for future development.

The industrial park -- located southeast of Vancouver Lake and within reach of key rail and highway corridors -- also skirts the boundary of the port's 154-acre wetland, called the Columbia River Mitigation Bank. The first of its kind in Clark County, the wetland mitigation bank is a partnership between the port and Clark County Mitigation Partners LLC, which is building and operating the wetland bank.

Sustainable philosophy

Mitigation Partners is a for-profit company owned and managed by Victor Woodward, who majored in environmental studies at the University of California, Berkeley, eventually "got sucked into the computer business," as he put it, and later found his calling in building wetlands.

"I'm having a lot of fun doing these restorations," he said, noting he's done other wetland projects, including in Snohomish County. "I get out there and get my hands dirty."

Woodward said he's using revenue from other projects, including the one in Snohomish County, to construct the Columbia River Mitigation Bank and another wetland project in Battle Ground.

Helping drive Woodward's entrepreneurial pursuit are recently adopted federal rules "that flipped everything upside down" when it comes to wetland restoration, he said.

It used to be that a developer or landowner was required to do an on-site project to offset the destruction of wetlands. But studies have shown that such a piecemeal, patchwork approach hasn't worked out, Woodward said.

So federal regulators, along with state and local officials, have worked out a system by which private companies are invited to conduct large-scale wetland-restoration projects.

The new regulatory framework essentially created a new market for Woodward and similarly minded businesspeople to do what they do. "Often we can do this more cost-effectively than government would be able to do it," Woodward said.

Construction of the Columbia River Mitigation Bank near the Centennial parcel launched in late summer 2011, and grading and contouring of the ground and plantings are under way this year.

The idea behind the wetland project is to restore and preserve one large wetland to offset the filling or draining of many smaller wetlands along the Columbia River floodplain, reaching from Bonneville Dam to the city of Longview.

Developers, from both the private and public sectors -- including the Port of Vancouver -- will be able to buy wetland "credits" from the "bank" to compensate for the destruction of wetlands elsewhere.

If all goes according to plan, Woodward said, he'll end up selling a total of 53 wetland credits at $190,000 apiece. But his company will have to meet environmental performance standards set by regulators to sell all of those credits, including everything from the density and survival of plants at the site to the richness of species that develop there.

Patty Boyden, the port's director of environmental services, said the industrial park and the wetland bank reflect the port's strategic goals of boosting economic development and treading lightly on the planet. It fits into, she said, the "philosophy of sustainability."

Farm to industrial park

Moving the Centennial property into shovel-ready territory while preserving environmental goals all began with a decades-old, 273-acre dairy farm run by Elmer and Marie Rufener.

Elmer Rufener was forced to quit farming in 1989 after suffering a stroke. He died in 1995 at the age of 92.

When the port bought the Rufener property in 2004 for $5.9 million, the land was designated as parcels 6, 7 and 8. The port used more than half of the land to create the 154-acre wetland mitigation bank. It includes a body of water known as Elmer's Pond.

Another 108 acres became Centennial Industrial Park, encompassing a portion of the former Rufener farm that grazed cows and produced milk products.

In 2009, as it prepared to transform the parcel from farm to industrial complex, the port decided against demolishing the agricultural buildings. Instead, in another bid to help the environment -- and out of respect for the community's agricultural roots -- the port required its contractor to dismantle the buildings, piece by piece, for reuse and recycling, according to Kathy Holtby, the port's real estate manager, who spoke to the port's three commissioners about the project during a July 24 public hearing.

The contractor exceeded the requirements, Holtby said, with more than 78 percent of the building materials being reused, 19 percent recycled and just 3 percent ending up in a landfill.

The reclaimed parts of the Rufener buildings, meanwhile, were "incorporated into various community developments," Holtby said. For example, sections of former cow-milking stations "are being used as decorative fencing in the parking lot of McCallister Village," Holtby said, an affordable housing development in the Fruit Valley neighborhood.

State funding

The port and the city of Vancouver cemented, in 2009, a development agreement for the Centennial parcel that spells out how the city will regulate development of the site. It details everything from lot sizes to the number of vehicle trips allowed.

The binding agreement is effective through October 2027, according to Alisa Pyszka, the city's business development manager. The idea is to remove all uncertainty about how a building application will be handled.

To developers, Pyszka said, the message is "we're not going to move the ball on you guys."

Much of the port's time and resources have been spent building the biggest capital project in its 100-year history: the $275 million expansion of rail tracks known as the West Vancouver Freight Access project.

Nevertheless, an opportunity to further raise the profile of the Centennial parcel opened up earlier this year when the Washington Legislature went looking for projects to spur the state's economy.

The state asked various agencies, including public ports, to submit to the state lists of economic development and infrastructure projects for potential funding, according to Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association.

Lawmakers wanted projects that were ready to go either this year or in 2013, Johnson said. Ultimately, the Legislature, aiming to create thousands of jobs, passed the $1 billion "jobs now act" budget package for capital projects. The Vancouver port's Centennial property was among the Clark County projects that received funding, roping in $5.75 million for roadway, utility and other improvements to the site.

Another port in the county -- the Port of Camas-Washougal -- received $1.5 million to spruce up a portion of its 120-acre Steigerwald Commerce Center with infrastructure.

From the Port of Vancouver's viewpoint, the $5.75 million largesse -- coupled with all of the previous planning and prepping -- push the Centennial Industrial Park closer to realizing its potential.

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