Clark County's housing market began to wake up from its long hibernation during this year's second quarter, providing an encouraging sign of recovery for an economy still suffering from the Portland region's highest unemployment, a shrinking public sector and fears that world economic troubles will strike close to home.
An almost 8 percent increase in home values, after four years of decline, has added new gusto to the real estate industry's mantra, "it's a great time to buy." Home sales increased slightly in the April-to-June quarter and foreclosures continued their decline, shrinking the inventory of unsold houses and prompting builders to once again start pounding nails.
In the most dramatic signal of better times, building permits for Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County more than doubled from a year ago. That optimism builds on a trend from this year's first quarter, when building permits had increased by more than 50 percent.
Clark County’s top second-quarter business stories
• The median home price rises for the first time since 2007, a trend that continues through the quarter.
• The county adds 900 jobs for the best month in a year and half the year’s total.
• Fitness retailer Fit Right Northwest announces it will open a downtown Vancouver store at the former Spanky’s site.
• The Fort Vancouver National Trust launches a $16 million campaign to raise money to purchase the historic Academy for $10.6, with the balance of funding to start work on the project.
• Riverview Community Bank reports a $12.8 million fourth-quarter loss, later revised to $16 million, for a full fiscal year loss of $31.7 million.
• Portland’s Jantzen Beach mall launches two-year, $50 million renovation.
• Washington liquor sales go private after 73 years of state-run stores. Some buyers shift to Oregon liquor stores.
• Pendleton Woolen Mills is fined $93,300 by the state for 36 “serious” safety and health violations at its Washougal mill. The company is appealing.
• Cinetopia officially opens its 23-screen, $18 million venue at Westfield Vancouver mall.
• Coal transport on trains running through Clark County emerges as a political and economic issue.
"New homebuyers are coming back into the marketplace," Ryan Zygar, owner of Vancouver-based Tamarack Homes and president of the Clark County Building Industry Association, told The Columbian in May.
Additionally, there were notable commercial developments during the quarter. The Academy building, a downtown landmark and one of the region's most noteworthy historic buildings, in May became a new focus for the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which launched a $16 million fundraising campaign to purchase and preserve the structure. Fit Right Northwest, a growing fitness retailer, said it would open a new store in the historic Spanky's building that had been vacant since 2008. In Vancouver, Cinetopia topped its previous glitzy movie and entertainment palaces with an $18 million, 23-screen showcase at Westfield Vancouver mall.
At a more basic level, the quarterly economic roundup offers other glimpses of improving times. The number of county residents with jobs rose by 3 percent for the year, a slight
improvement over last quarter's 2.7 percent year-over-year employment increase.
Unfortunately, few of those people were reporting to work close to home. During the past 12 months, only about 800 jobs were added within the county, regional economist Scott Bailey said in his June labor market report. Slow job growth in the past two months is a disappointing fall from April, when the county added 900 jobs and the year-over-year growth stood at 1,800 jobs.
One reason for the tepid job growth in Clark County is that added jobs in the private sector are being largely offset by cuts from cash-starved public-sector employers -- primarily school districts, but also city and county governments.
The quarter continued the discouraging pattern of a local unemployment rate that remained stubbornly higher than in the Portland metropolitan area as a whole. In May, the last month with an accurate reading, the county reported 11.2 percent unemployment, around 3 percent higher than the Portland metro region's rate and statewide averages for Oregon and Washington. In the past three months, Bailey noted, 1,100 Clark County residents exhausted all unemployment benefits. The state reported 24,040 Clark County workers without jobs at the end of May.
Still, those who are employed appear increasingly willing to spend, as reflected in the quarter's rise in retail sales. Final numbers for the quarter aren't yet available but based on statewide projections, the quarter's in-store sales could exceed $500 million. Still, that level of spending would only return sales to 2008 levels, an indicator of the recession's huge dent in the spending habits of Clark County households.
The Clark County retail sales number of course doesn't count spending at Portland's Jantzen Beach mall, a huge destination for county residents. Mall owners announced during the quarter that they would spend $50 million on a long-planned makeover. Speaking of untaxed retail sales, liquor stores at Jantzen Beach and other nearby Portland locations saw a huge rush in business after Washington dismantled its state-run liquor program on June 1.
The voter-approved privatization of liquor sales statewide opened to mixed reviews, with some consumers welcoming the greater choice of spirits retailers but many more complaining about higher prices and a confusing array of taxes. The Columbian's unscientific reader survey found that median prices were higher in local stores for 14 out of 20 of the state's top-selling brands.
But while pocketbook issues like liquor sales and yo-yo gasoline prices create plenty of buzz, the much larger issues about the health of the world economy weigh much more heavily on local workers and employers. The Port of Vancouver reported a 33 percent decline in cargo tonnage for the quarter, due largely to a decline in wheat exports. Port officials said the Asian market has softened due to a weak economy while other ports in the Columbia-Snake rivers system have increased their capacity.
It's that sort of economic news that will assume larger significance in the months ahead as the presidential campaign reaches its peak. The debate will focus largely on the health of the nation's economy, and voters weary of the recession and its residue will have to choose which leader they think offers the best course for the future.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story has been changed to reflect a correction. The Fort Vancouver National Trust has launched a $16 million campaign to raise money to purchase and preserve the historic Academy building. Part of the funding - $10.6 million - will be used to purchase the site, with the balance being used for work on the project.