Recovery sees signs of growth, concern

Home sales rise sharply; wages stagnate, decline

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Quarterly highlights

January

Clark College explores options for north county campus.

Kaiser says it will switch from PeaceHealth to Legacy for local hospital services.

Riverview’s second-quarter earnings give bank a boost.

February

Rumors of new fab at WaferTech site stir up Camas.

Nike considered expansion at former Hewlett-Packard campus, documents show.

United Grain Corp. locks out ILWU members on sabotage accusation.

March

Hewlett-Packard printer designed in Camas wins strong reviews.

Housing market shows signs of strong recovery.

Clark County’s jobs recovery shows strength.

This year's first quarter showed more signs of a quickening economic recovery in Clark County, but also some worries about those being left behind by slow job growth and stagnant or declining wages.

Home sales rose dramatically, as did median housing prices, giving a boost to a key industry in the county. Construction of single-family homes climbed by 45 percent and the number of permits for apartments quadrupled to 403 apartment units in the year's first quarter, compared to 90 in the same period one year ago.

But single-family residential permits are well below their high marks of the pre-recession decade of 1997-2006, and foreclosures nearly doubled in the quarter compared to a year ago as banks moved more quickly against homeowners far behind on their mortgage payments.

There were positive signs on the jobs front, with the county adding a net of 2,500 jobs for the year, through February. But that number also carries a caveat: in the past three years, Clark County has recovered less than half the jobs lost during the recession.

There were some unusual developments beyond those standard economic indicators. At the Port of Vancouver, United Grain Corp. locked out some 44 union workers on Feb. 27. The company said it initiated a lockout, which followed a long period of tense contract negotiations, after a union member sabotaged company equipment. The union has denied the charge. The Vancouver Police Department investigated the allegation and has turned over its report to the county Prosecuting Attorney's office, which is considering whether to bring charges.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union members continue to picket United Grain at the Port of Vancouver, with some tense exchanges reported at the site. A single attempt in March to return to the bargaining table ended without any significant discussion of the issues of job security and working conditions that the union wants to put on the table. The end of this dispute is nowhere in sight.

Beyond the standard economic indicators, Clark County enjoyed some drama about high-profile jobs that got away, and jobs that might be coming our way. Public records obtained by The Columbian showed that Nike, which had secretly searched for expansion sites outside of Oregon, had considered the former Hewlett-Packard complex in east Vancouver. Vancouver aggressively courted Nike to move hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs to the site, but the company decided to grow instead in Oregon after that state's Legislature hurriedly approved tax legislation favorable to the Fortune 500 company. (This month, Portland-based Integra announced that it would move its headquarters and some 500 jobs to the same site in 2014).

Meanwhile, the intrigue that surrounded industry speculation about a site for a costly silicon fabrication plant code-named Azalea took on a new dimension during the quarter. Industry sources had long speculated that the secret project could be a new fab for the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., parent company to WaferTech, which operates a fab in Camas. The battle to attract that plant was said to be between Oregon and New York, with Camas as a dark horse. But by the end of the quarter, it appeared that a possible TSMC fab was a separate proposal from the high-profile Azalea project. Local officials are in a waiting game for a decision, or an announcement, from TSMC about whether it has any plans for the WaferTech site.

But if the WaferTech site's future is an important waiting game, nothing compares to the wait for resolution of the great Columbia River Crossing controversy. The Oregon Legislature has already conditionally approved $450 million in funding for the $3.4 billion project, and all eyes are now on the Washington Legislature to come up with an equal amount. About 90 percent of county residents are familiar with the project, according to a recent scientific poll commissioned by The Columbian. Public opinion is divided, and it's now in the hands of the state Senate to act on a funding proposal. All bets are off about the future of the megaproject if the session ends without funding.

Whatever the outcome, look for the CRC's future to be one of the biggest stories of the current quarter.