Editor's Note:A full version of this story is available in the print edition. The entire three-part "Big Divide" series, including The Columbian's poll about the Columbia River Crossing, can be purchased at amazon.com for Kindle reader and apps.
Earth movers trundle over mounds of dirt where roads and utilities will open the way for new businesses at the Port of Vancouver. By the end of August, the port's $5.3 million investment on this long-dormant 108 acres will have bought infrastructure for about half of the new Centennial Industrial Park. The goal: attract businesses that will provide 500 family-wage jobs.
The project is one of several bright spots in Clark County's economy: PeaceHealth is steadily expanding its jobs, and telecomm company Integra says it will move its headquarters and at last 500 jobs from Portland next year. Broader labor market data back up the anecdotal evidence of momentum: The county has recovered almost half of the nearly 10,000 jobs that disappeared during the recession. The county's 2 percent annualized employment growth now exceeds the nation's job growth rate and pulls closer to the state's 2.5 percent rate.
But 11 percent of Clark County workers are still without jobs -- a rate much too high to declare ourselves in the clear. And average wages are lower than they were before the recession. So the question looms: Will we build on the recent gains in the months and years ahead or will we lose our footing and slide?
The answer is hazy. The momentum-stalling fight over the Columbia River Crossing is a big reason why. The focus has shifted from rebuilding the local economy to debating a massive bistate, nationally significant transportation project that may happen whether or not Clark County leaders and citizens want it.
Business leaders hope to shift the focus back to the Clark County Economic Development Plan - a new, 133-page pro-growth manifesto for rejuvenating the county's economy and reinforcing the region against the next crash.
Some elements of the plan are coming to fruition now. The Port of Vancouver's Centennial Industrial Park, as well as other "land for jobs" efforts by the Port of Camas-Washougal and the Port of Ridgefield, are under way.
Others are far off. Longer-term initiatives include building a business-oriented research park at Washington State University Vancouver. Mel Netzhammer, chancellor of WSUV, said the worthy goal of securing land and building the infrastructure for a research park will take at least 10 years, given the current size of the university, and the financial and planning challenges involved.
Clark County has previously acted with foresight, said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Employment Security Department.
Decades ago, Bailey said, Camas' visionary mayor, Nan Henriksen, saw that the town wouldn't be able to rely on the paper mill forever.
She saw the need to begin laying the groundwork for new employers and for new jobs. She backed plans to set aside land for new industrial development.
And, Bailey said, "lo and behold, a bunch of new industries came."
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