Progress in economy, but worries linger

Moving in the right direction Local businesses recorded some positive moves that yielded jobs, but unemployment persists

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Top Clark County business stories of the fourth quarter

October 2011

Flurry of downtown Vancouver activity brings more jobs to city’s core.

Developer applies to build small grocery store at Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards, a longtime food desert.

Port of Camas-Washougal seeks ideas for 40 waterfront acres formerly occupied by the Hambleton sawmill.

NOVEMBER

Credit unions seek to cash in on bank backlash with “Bank Transfer Day.”

Natural foods supermarket New Seasons opens its first Clark County store; more may follow.

First Independent owners announce they’re selling the family-owned Vancouver bank to Sterling Savings Bank.

DECEMBER

Insitu Inc. says it will move production and testing operations to Bingen.

Fisher Investments workers move into $30 million Camas building.

Occupy movement targets West Coast ports, stalling some Vancouver trucking firms.

SEH America announces it will expand its production capacity in Vancouver.

It’s deja vu, all over again.

Two years ago, looking back on the fourth quarter of 2009, The Columbian reported that despite continued high unemployment Clark County’s economy was showing signs of a recovery. A year later, in our review of late 2010, we wrote that the slow pace of recovery was frustrating, but at least things were moving in the right direction.

With recent history in mind, the last three months of 2011 feel eerily familiar. Unemployment declined, more houses sold, and businesses continued to invest. But too many Clark County residents were still without work, home prices continued to fall and business investments, while heartening, were still far below prerecession levels.

While all signs point to gradual improvements, news from Clark County’s fourth quarter of 2011 suggests that it will be a year or more before our economy makes the shift from “less sick” to “more healthy.”

And Clark County businesses made decisions in October, November and December that will help us get there.

On an October tour of downtown Vancouver, Mayor Tim Leavitt and others learned that more than 70 people had been hired because of activity in the city’s core. A climbing gym, opened earlier in the year, continued to add customers, plans moved forward for renovations to several buildings along Main Street, and the former Koplan’s Home Furnishings building sold to a Web design firm that moved in upstairs. Those moves set the stage for more to come, including construction of an apartments-and-storefronts complex planned for the former downtown Burgerville site.

Meanwhile, projects that will generate far more jobs moved forward at sites across the county. Fisher Investment’s $30 million Camas building welcomed 400 employees in December, with room for about 50 more and plans for a second structure next door. The Port of Vancouver continued progress on its freight rail project, which will employ 4,000 people over its construction and could spur creation of 1,000 jobs when it’s done. In east Clark County, leaders began exploring options for developing 40 waterfront acres formerly occupied by the Hambleton sawmill. And Insitu Inc. and SEH America both announced expansion plans.

Amidst these positive moves were signs that major challenges remain for many sectors of Clark County’s economy. Northwest Pipe continued to face accounting challenges that left it out of compliance with Nasdaq’s rules. Nautilus moved closer to profitability without quite achieving it. First Independent Bank announced its sale to Sterling Savings Bank. And Clark County’s labor force contracted, as discouraged job-hunters gave up the search for employment.

Dissatisfaction with big businesses spilled over from the political arena in the fourth quarter of 2011, as well. In November, area credit unions increased staffing to handle anti-bank backlash on “Bank Transfer Day.” Though relatively few people fired their banks on the official day, plenty have made the move from for-profit to nonprofit banking, with iQ Credit Union reporting a 25 percent uptick in new account creation in October, for example.

The Occupy Wall Street movement also took off in the third quarter of 2011, with several gatherings of Occupy Vancouver. When the movement targeted West Coast ports in December, it bypassed the Port of Vancouver. A blockade of part of the Port of Portland stalled some Vancouver trucking firms, which could not pick up supplies or make deliveries for a day.

With gridlock continuing to dominate the nation’s politics, and Europe’s governments facing still-unfolding crises, the scene outside Clark County was likewise fraught with challenges.

Despite some signs of hope in recent business headlines, some worry that Southwest Washington’s economy could get worse before things get better.

“At best, 2012 will be another crummy year,” said Scott Bailey, who analyzes Southwest Washington’s labor market for the state Employment Security Department. “Our economy is still in deep trouble, and what we do locally is important but has limited impact. We need national action, and we haven’t been getting it.”