New Ridgefield city manager committed to smart growth

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — As Phillip Messina takes up the mantle of Ridgefield's top appointed administrator, he says he's committed to ensuring Clark County's fastest-growing community grows smartly.

With Ridgefield's population expected to grow from just 5,000 this year to as many as 25,000 residents in the next two decades, planning for that possibility becomes essential, he said.

"In the end, it's about (developing) quality," said Messina, who started work as Ridgefield's new city manager Oct. 22. "It's about creating a neighborhood, rather than a bunch of houses thrown together."

Messina was picked from a field of 45 candidates in September for the post. He succeeds Justin Clary, who joined the engineering firm Maul Foster Alongi in the spring. Paul Lewis, a Vancouver financial analyst, served as interim city manager.

Looking forward, Messina said one of his top priorities will be keeping the city's growth on track.

The Interstate 5 junction road project is wrapping up, with two roundabouts now circulating traffic along Pioneer Street. But the city's transportation needs continue to change. Those needs partly will be based on PeaceHealth's plans to develop 75 acres at the northeast corner of Pioneer Street and Interstate 5.

And then there are the changes within city government. Because Ridgefield exceeded 5,000 residents this year, it added two new city councilors, John Main and Sandra Day.

But growth is nothing new, Messina said. The 23-year veteran of public administration most recently served as the city manager of Central Point, Ore., in the Rogue Valley, about 35 miles north of the California border. In his 10 years there, Messina oversaw a minor growth boom when the population shot from 12,000 to 17,000.

Messina also served as the top administrator for the Washington cities of North Bend, Burlington and Colfax. In North Bend, Messina shepherded the city through its purchase of a portion of Tollgate Farm, 370 acres now preserved as open space.

To get acclimated to Ridgefield and the city's developing needs, Messina said he plans to make the rounds of local businesses to find out what they need to be successful.

Messina said he is confident about the direction Ridgefield is taking, adding the city "is going through an upturn right now, so that's a positive."

That upturn comes after a decade of up-and-down growth.

In the past decade, Ridgefield has grown faster than any city in the county. With a population gain of 122 percent between 2000 and 2010, Ridgefield has seen growth in housing, infrastructure and business development.

Most of Ridgefield's growth was between 2004 and 2006, when the city processed 707 single-family building permits, a number that put a strain on its practically nonexistent planning department. Since 2007, when building development nationwide slid, the city has seen a precipitous drop off in permits.

There are signs that more gains for Ridgefield are on the horizon. Through September, the city has processed 97 single-family building permits and should break 100 by the end of the year.

And there's room for more. Ridgefield has 1,200 acres of commercial land, which can be put to use for business. And the city has another 1,700 residential lots available.

Mayor Ron Onslow said he has high hopes for Ridgefield moving forward. Working closely with Messina to create a city with fully functional districts will be a key, he said.

Ridgefield will continue to emphasize bringing light industrial businesses to the city, Onslow said, so it doesn't become a bedroom community.

"We want businesses that create jobs," he said. "The more jobs we have here, the more people we have living here."

As Ridgefield continues its transition into a larger city, Messina said there's still a lot to learn.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.