Ridgefield a city at a crossroad

Can north county site fulfill its dreams of vibrant development?

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
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Ridgefield’s past, present, and future come together at the lushly landscaped roundabout where Pioneer Street -- the main drag between Interstate 5 and downtown Ridgefield -- meets 45th Avenue.

On one corner is Ridgefield’s newest face, the predictably pleasant Pioneer Canyon subdivision that is slowly filling with homes that appeal to buyers wanting easy freeway access. Nearby light post signs urge visitors to “Dine Shop Recreate.”

Across the way is a ramshackle house on the old Horn family farm that gave the intersection its informal name as Horn’s Corner. The boarded-up house, spray-painted with “no trespassing” warnings, is a forlorn remnant of the area’s not-too-distant rural past, before Ridgefield annexed miles of farmland to reach for a pot of real estate gold at Interstate 5.

A sign in front of the house calls out that the land is available for development. Not interested? The other two corners at the intersection have also sprouted signs beckoning for commercial real estate development.

Hammered by the recession just as the town was poised to become the metropolitan area’s next development hot spot, Ridgefield is now waiting for the boom it is certain will come again. Brash predictions of a decade ago that Ridgefield and the larger north Clark County “Discovery Corridor” would become a mini-Silicon Valley have faded. But community leaders and business boosters say Ridgefield’s easy freeway access, historic downtown and proximity to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge invite comparisons to the Oregon cities of Wilsonville or Hillsboro, with the affluent small-town ambience of Lake Oswego or Oregon wine country’s Carlton thrown in for good measure.

“I just think it’s a place waiting to happen,” says Ridgefield Mayor Ronald Onslow, a lifelong Clark County resident who moved to the town in 2005.

The Great Recession has made that wait longer than anyone expected a half-decade ago, when Ridgefield and other north Clark County communities saw themselves as the pre-ordained recipients of the Portland region’s next growth wave. The delay has allowed Ridgefield and its north Clark County neighbors, Battle Ground and La Center, time to re-evaluate their ambitions and build their infrastructure to accommodate growth.

Even as they scale back from their formerly lofty heights, local leaders hope at least to attract businesses that offer well-paying jobs, rather than just freeway-oriented distribution warehouses with scant employment. And leaders say they’re encouraged by PeaceHealth’s plans to develop medical offices and other commercial buildings on a 75-acre site near the freeway. They’re also pressing for a Clark College branch campus on that same site.

“We didn’t get the Silicon Valley,” acknowledges Brent Grening, the Port of Ridgefield’s executive director and one of the original visionaries of the Discovery Corridor. But Grening sees return to the population boom that started then stalled in the last decade, and he’d like jobs to be part of that growth.

“There is nothing wrong with the Discovery Corridor,” he says. “The way I look at these communities, we have a choice. What do we want to be? … It doesn’t have to be just sprawl.”

‘Destination product’

Dee Metro has operated businesses in downtown Ridgefield for 24 years, stringing together a living by converting a former church to a wedding and reception hall, a limousine service, and since December a small wine bar and deli. She has a front-door view of the downsized economy. Couples are still getting married, but receptions aren’t what they used to be. If they still exist, Christmas parties and business functions are smaller than in the past. Everybody is negotiating hard for a deal.

The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro, though, is off to a good start in its first two months. It offers entertainment, tastings of local wines, and tours of nearby wineries. “It’s consistently fairly busy,” said Metro. “The feedback we’re getting is that people want more of a dinner menu, so it’s definitely evolving.” She sees downtown taking on the atmosphere of Oregon’s Lake Oswego or perhaps it’s small Willamette Valley wine country charmville of Carlton.

Metro’s small bistro, one of several new or recently renovated businesses in Ridgefield’s historic downtown, taps into one vision of Ridgefield’s future. North Clark County is home to a small but growing number of wineries, and some foresee a maturing local wine industry that could slake the thirst of wine lovers from the Portland and Puget Sound regions. The Port of Ridgefield last summer added the wine industry to its economic development portfolio, opening the door to incentives and marketing efforts to bolster the industry’s development.

“Wine is a destination product that supports food and tourism,” said Grening, who grew up in Woodinville, a winery hub in the Seattle region. “We don’t know where this will go in Ridgefield, but it’s something to take a run at.”

The shape of development on port-owned land adjoining Ridgefield’s downtown will play a central role in defining the city center’s future. The port is completing a state-funded cleanup of a 41-acre site that was heavily contaminated by Pacific Wood Treating Inc., which had operated for 30 years on port-owned property before declaring bankruptcy and going out of business in 1993.

This year the port will finally remove old buildings on the site, which it has renamed Miller’s Landing. It has developed a tentative plan for retail and office development opening onto the Lake River waterfront and hopes to secure federal funding for a railroad overpass connecting the project to downtown. The city is also improving its sewer system and developing a downtown park.

“The downtown can be made a charming downtown,” says Onslow, the city’s mayor. He cites as local attributes river views and boating access, proximity to the wildlife refuge that is a regional attraction, and the gradual emergence of businesses such as Myrtle’s Tea House that appeal to both locals and visitors. “It could be quite successful in the long run.”

Tony Zebrun, third-generation family owner of Zebrun’s Starliner grocery in Ridgefield’s downtown, isn’t convinced of that vision. The old city center has not bounced back from the closure of the mill and the decline of farming, which once fed retail supply and equipment businesses. Visitors to the wildlife refuge rarely stop to spend in downtown. And the people who work out by the freeway or live in those houses with a straight shot on Pioneer to Interstate 5? They head to the highway, to Vancouver or Portland, for shopping and entertainment, he says.

He doesn’t see the Norman Rockwell downtown others envision. Instead, he describes Ridgefield as a working-class town that never had a wealthy class to create a charming downtown or idyllic neighborhoods. “Ridgefield never had a golden age,” he says.

Still, he’s sorry to see the old Ridgefield fade. “For people who have been here a long time, it’s tough to see this going to a bedroom community,” he says. “Books have been written about not letting this happen.”

Waiting to happen

Scott Fraser’s name is on those Kidder Mathews real estate signs out by the freeway, where Ridgefield’s clean slate awaits new businesses and residents. Fraser, a commercial broker who sells property throughout the Portland metropolitan area, agrees with Mayor Onslow’s assessment that Ridgefield is a place waiting to happen.

“As the economy returns to what had been normal, Ridgefield is poised to become the next Wilsonville,” he believes. “I’m pitting my future on it.”

He cites the area’s easy I-5 access, of course, shovel-ready development sites that don’t require costly wetlands mitigation, and a “pro-business attitude” by government leaders. The $40 million Dollar Tree Stores distribution warehouse, which christened the Union Ridge commercial development site on a former potato farm in 2003, won permits from the city in just 42 days, according to Fraser. “That’s unheard of in the Portland area,” he says.

Ridgefield City Manager Justin Clary notes that the Dollar Tree site has buildings covering 18 acres and employs fewer than 150 workers. While no one is complaining about the company or its jobs, Clary and other city leaders hope the right kind of development on the open tracts will finally create what he calls “a golden age for the city” with office parks and manufacturing as key parts of its jobs mix.

“The economy has caused everyone to pause a bit,” said Clary, who has been city manager for eight years. “That said, there’s still a desire for a high-quality job base.” His vision would be for Ridgefield to emulate Hillsboro, with its rich job base, more than Wilsonville with its heavier concentration of freeway-oriented distribution businesses.

The challenge for Ridgefield and the north Clark County region will be to attract the first big fish to set the tone for a vibrant economic base, says Ron Arp, a Clark County business consultant. Today, the area lacks the kind of company that could become an anchor for its growth -- a Fisher Investments, for instance, or a Sharp Microelectronics, two large employers in east Clark County.

“It just doesn’t have those anchors,” he said. “Without that, it will be a nice rural bedroom community.”

To that Fraser says, in effect: good luck. Those jobs don’t just fall off the potato truck.

“I work in communities all over Washington and Oregon, and every community wants to have Google,” he said. The reality is that very few of those businesses are in existence.”

“The second company like that,” he says, “will be much easier than the first one.”