In Our View: Cautious Optimism

Transportation projects fuel hopefor an improved local economy in 2012

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How will our community change in 2012? No one knows for sure. The only thing certain about 2012 is that local economic uncertainties will continue.

Clark County’s unemployment rate was down (technically) a couple of percentage points in 2011, but thousands of folks lost their jobs, many people simply quit looking for work and Scott Bailey of the state Employment Security Department recently told The Columbian “there’s still considerable job loss being generated.”

Nevertheless, we at The Columbian will continue to cling to the hope for improvement in 2012 in the local economy. Even if the business climate doesn’t warm up, progress can be expected in other areas, most visibly in transportation infrastructure.

Yes, there remain philosophical and procedural changes that Clark County residents should expect of elected officials. At the state level, the Legislature can achieve even greater savings by privatizing more work under competitive contracts. And at both the state and local levels, taxpayers deserve tougher stances by public officials in negotiations with public unions. Whatever sacrifices that have been made by state and local public workers fall far short of the pain felt in the private sector. And it is within the economically tumultuous private sector that any meaningful recovery will unfold.

On the plus side, three positive developments in the county’s northwest, central and southeast areas are due in 2012:

The massive and sprawling $133 million reconstruction of Interstate 5 at the Salmon Creek interchange is fully under way, and 2012 should bring visible, encouraging evidence of progress at the “Y” in the freeways. Completion isn’t expected until 2014, but watching the work proceed will be a source of optimism.

The $48 million interchange at state Highway 500 and St. Johns Boulevard also will make its greatest progress in 2012. By the time it’s completed in 2013, a bridge will carry St. Johns traffic over the highway, with interchange ramps expediting turns at the busy intersection.

In Camas and Washougal, $49 million in improvements to state Highway 14 will be in full swing this year, with a wider and safer highway set for completion in the winter of 2012/2013.

In yet another corner of the community — the southwest — there’s plenty of reason for confidence because 2012 is shaping up as a transformational year for the Port of Vancouver. The port’s West Vancouver Freight Access project is not scheduled for completion until 2017, but $90 million already has been spent and several other capital projects will be in full swing this year. Expect big advancements toward long-range job creation as Farwest Steel works on its fabrication plant on 20 acres, global mining giant BHP Billiton pursues plans for operations here and United Grain continues its large expansion project.

The new year will be critical for new leadership collaborations that, if successful, could yield big gains in local job creation. The Columbia River Economic Development Council is under the new direction of Lisa Nisenfeld, whose predecessor, Bart Phillips, now directs Innovate Washington’s Vancouver office for clean energy strategies. Former Camas Mayor Paul Dennis is in charge at the new Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association. How well these groups work together will go a long way toward determining how soon Clark County can enter any economic recovery stream.

Make no mistake, 2011 brought as much pain as gain in the local economy. But it was better than 2010. And that fact — coupled with obvious ways the county is poised for progress in transportation infrastructure — should inspire guarded optimism about what can happen here in 2012.