The Big Divide: Competing political wills block the way

Competing political wills block the way Before CRC, Clark County tackled its economic woes by parties putting differences aside for the common good but not anymore

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Editor's Note: Last week The Columbian published a shortened version of this series on our website. This week we will be releasing the full versions of the stories along with detailed poll results.

photoBrian Wolfe, commissioner for the Port of Vancouver, talks about the CRC and how it has created a political divide in the county.

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Live Chat Transcript

On Tuesday, April 16, The Columbian hosted a live chat for readers to discuss this series, "The Big Divide," with reporters Aaron Corvin and Eric Florip. If you missed it, you can read it by replaying it online

Video Series

Watch our video series exploring this story with interviews of key stakeholders discussing the Columbia River Crossing and its impact on civic and political life in Clark County.

Brian Wolfe brought the three-ring binder down in a chopping motion, smacking a big table inside his downtown Vancouver law-office building. The 70-year-old Port of Vancouver commissioner leaned in and pushed forward the binder.

It contained a plan for sparking the county’s sluggish economy that had won endorsements from the business, civic, and political leaders who have historically set Clark County’s business and political agenda. Wolfe, one of those long-established leaders, wants that plan to become a reality.

“This is more than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “We’re bringing education together, we’re talking about a lot of things to make this community more sound economically.”

But frustration, more than optimism, underscored Wolfe’s gravelly voice.

That’s understandable.

He and others who’ve steered the county’s growth strategy for decades are under fire by critics girding to capsize their priorities. Wolfe and other leaders, while acknowledging the messiness of Columbia River Crossing decision-making, see a new Interstate 5 bridge as a main ingredient of Clark County’s future prosperity. The project, aimed at speeding freight and commuters, and producing a safer link between Portland and Vancouver, is expected to generate 1,900 jobs per year during construction. But their critics aim to sink the proposed CRC, in part because the $3.4 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project will bring light rail into Clark County. If they’re successful, CRC opponents will tear into the very fabric of the leadership elite’s sense of what the county needs to thrive.

If Wolfe and other longtime leaders are frustrated, the county’s anti-establishment political activists are energized. They are unified in their opposition to light rail, which Columbia River Crossing leaders say is integral to project funding. The CRC, with its planning mishaps and cost overruns, and its need for cash from state and local taxpayers as well as tolls from bridge users is, says opponent Larry Patella, “the biggest pocket-picking scheme ever.”

photoLarry Patella, an outspoken critic of the CRC, calls the project "the biggest pick-pocketing scheme ever."

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But the vision of project opponents for solving Clark County’s chronic transportation problems is less clear — express buses, perhaps, or a third Columbia River bridge that nobody in control of transportation purse strings is even talking about.

Local officials in Clark County and the area’s state lawmakers are under pressure from state and federal officials, including the governors of Washington and Oregon, to stop squabbling and strike a deal, however imperfect. But compromise remains elusive. The impasse spills into other areas of civic life — most notably, in discussions of how Clark County should grow as it recovers from the bruising economic crash. Whether or not the Columbia River Crossing is built anytime soon, the question for both sides looms: Where do we go from here?

The answer is not at all clear. But for now, the dustup churns with everything from the clash of urban and rural interests to rival beliefs about what role government should play in the economy.

The political power of CRC critics was amplified in last year’s election of businessman David Madore, a staunch light-rail critic, to the Clark County Board of Commissioners. Madore led the county’s move to cut funding for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, which, like the business and political establishment it represents, backs the CRC.

photoBusinessman David Madore, one of the most vocal critics of the CRC, wasted no time in flexing his political muscle as a new county commissioner and led efforts to pull county funding for the Columbia River Economic Development Council. The CREDC has expressed support for the CRC project.

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Madore associates Portland with high-density development, noise, gobs of traffic, skyscrapers. People who want that can have it, he said. He sees the attempt by CRC planners to run Portland’s light rail into Clark County as no less than an attack on the county’s quality of life.

“We respect their freedom to be who they are,” Madore said of Portland. “Let Portland be weird. That’s OK. I’m OK with that. Just not over here.”

But Madore also concedes that he’s scarcely read the 133-page growth plan the Columbia River Economic Development Council is heading up and that Wolfe finds so vital to the county’s future.

The plan lists the CRC among a multitude of important infrastructure projects. But it’s far broader than that, calling for increasing Washington State University Vancouver’s role in business development, recruiting software and information-technology companies, and making more shovel-ready land available to employers. It’s a plan that Clark County’s longtime economic development leaders say they’ll pursue, regardless of the fractiousness of the Columbia River Crossing project.

It won’t be the first time the community’s pacesetters, facing a downtrodden economy, have set out to plot a new course for the region’s development.

All the players

Decades ago, in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy was in the dumps, Clark County faced a titanic decision over how to move forward.

The difference then was that cooperation, rather than division, was in the air.

Wolfe, an attorney, and other community leaders coalesced around the idea that the public and private sectors needed to cooperate to win more jobs and to secure more capital investment to spur the community forward.

They needed an instrument to put such a plan into action. It didn’t come easy.

Business and government leaders were willing to serve on an economic-development committee. But local representatives of sought-after private funders, including Hewlett-Packard and Boise Cascade, struggled to get their faraway corporate managers to financially back a public-private partnership. Frustrated, Wolfe and others turned to the public sector.

The result was the nonprofit Columbia River Economic Development Council, an uncommon public-private venture that, to this day, acts as an economic development contractor to local governments, including the city of Vancouver, Clark Public Utilities and the Port of Vancouver.

The council, which over time attracted more financial support from businesses, was primarily charged with recruiting companies and offering prospective employers a clearinghouse for their informational, business-resource and site-selection needs.

The organization reflected the county’s conservative business culture. So not everyone was comfortable with the council’s choice of Joe Tanner, then a state lawmaker, as its first president.

“He was a Democrat, for crying out loud,” said Wolfe, then a Republican. But political divisions of the time didn’t impede a common purpose of attracting jobs and businesses.

Tanner said his mission was to begin steering Clark County’s economy, still heavily dependent on natural resources, in a completely different direction. He and other lawmakers went to work. In the 1980s, for example, they planted the seeds of enabling legislation that would eventually establish new branch university campuses across the state, including Washington State University Vancouver.

As the broader economy began to improve, leaving the stagnant early 1980s behind — and as the CREDC began recruitment efforts — key corporations, including high-tech employers, started setting up shop in Clark County.

Part of the success was luck. Part of it was the region’s low cost of electricity, thoughtful industrial land planning, and the state’s lack of an income tax. Part of it was the CREDC’s ability to make the necessary contacts, rally the troops and present a unified front. And victories at the Legislature, including passing sales-tax breaks to encourage the likes of SEH America to expand, bolstered the overall effort to rearrange the county’s economy.

“We would have all the government players and all the private-sector players,” Wolfe said. “The camaraderie that we had in those days as a community was absolutely incredible.”

‘Not the only game in town’

In the Great Recession’s aftermath, it’s a different story. Like the nation’s politics, the county’s political divides seem deeper and starker than ever.

To be sure, the Columbia River Economic Development Council remains a force in Clark County.

But it no longer enjoys the widespread political support it once did. “CREDC,” Madore said, “is not the only game in town.” Madore proved that point in January. That’s when he and Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke suddenly informed the organization they would halt the county’s financial support unless the agency dropped its support of the CRC project.

Last year, Madore ousted Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt, a moderate Republican. Madore got 53 percent of the vote. That same election year, Tanner, the first president of the CREDC, returned to politics, making a bid for the seat held by Madore’s soon-to-be ally, incumbent Republican Mielke. Tanner, who championed the CREDC’s new growth plan during his campaign, lost on a 52 percent to 48 percent vote.

It was a seismic shift in county politics that would ultimately align Clark County government officially against the CRC and put it at odds with some goals of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Madore owns a successful business, US Digital, in east Vancouver. As a private citizen, he’d founded NoTolls.com, a political action group that opposes light rail and tolls. He sees the CRC as a costly behemoth, shoved down the community’s throat by outsiders. He quickly put his anti-rail passion to work as an elected official, orchestrating the county’s decision to cut its previous commitment of $200,000 over two years to the CREDC. It was a highly unusual move: Clark County government had been a CREDC ally since the agency’s inception.

The loss of $200,000 to the agency blunted its “land for jobs” effort, which aims to secure more shovel-ready industrial and commercial land to lure employers to Clark County, according to the CREDC’s president, Lisa Nisenfeld. The CREDC had planned to use the county funding to hire an expert to implement it. “It’s going to slow us down,” she said of the funding cut. “I don’t see it as fatal.”

‘The solution is us’

More than a month after the funding cut, Madore was jubilant about his new role in county politics. He’s getting to know and admire the county’s team, Madore said, and he’s proud to be part of it.

He now occupies a government office on the sixth floor of the Clark County Public Service Center. He came to Clark County from Orange County, Calif., 22 years ago as a businessman, not a politician.

Clark County, he said, is more business friendly, and “you’ve got big backyards, you’ve got quiet, you have quality of life,” he said in an interview. He speaks adoringly of his wife and children. The lapel pin on his suit is a cross emblazoned in the Stars and Stripes, reflecting his overt patriotism and strong Christian faith.

Madore doesn’t want to see the higher-density development that characterizes much of Southern California. He sees Portland — lauded by some as an example of thoughtful parks, transit and urban planning — as an overcrowded and traffic-clogged mess.

Nevertheless, Madore moved to a state whose Legislature passed, in 1990, the Growth Management Act, which echoes the anti-sprawl goals of Oregon’s land-use planning system. Washington’s landmark law calls on counties and cities to “reduce sprawl” and to “encourage development in urban areas.”

Madore insists the law’s call for responsible growth doesn’t necessarily mandate higher densities. “You’re either going to sprawl up and all the density and the crime and the pollution and the traffic congestion, just the concentration that lowers the quality of life,” Madore said, “or you’re going to sprawl out. You’re not going to get rid of sprawl.”

Madore views Portland’s light rail as a harbinger of increased urbanization. He doesn’t want to build up. He offers no middle ground. “Which is a better quality of life? One that’s up like inner-city Portland or one that’s out like Clark County?” Madore said. “That’s what differentiates these two communities.”

He added, “Light rail is looking for a bridge to crawl, land, creep, in order to invade,” he said. “Light rail does not belong in Clark County. Buses are working wonderfully now.”

But for all of his opinions about how the county should grow, Madore acknowledges he’s not familiar with the countywide growth plan led by the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

The council — built and financed over decades by dozens of businesses and local governments with a legacy of success and a promising plan for the future — seemed to hold a spot in Madore’s rear-view mirror. Asked whether he’d read the new growth plan before he’d decided to eliminate the CREDC’s funding, Madore said: “Not in detail, no.”

But the economic development council, he said, “is not the solution. The solution is us.”

By “us,” he said, he means the Clark County Board of Commissioners. Madore opposes raising taxes and favors cutting the time and cost of securing building permits. He believes once the government hurdles to business expansion are eliminated or reduced companies will jump in and create jobs.

On the issue of streamlining building permits, Madore isn’t that far off from the view of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, which is working, on local and state levels, to make it easier for employers to obtain permits to build.

But the council sees government as a partner in setting the table for business growth.

It also supports building new infrastructure, including the CRC.

Madore essentially sees government as an obstacle. “Government does not create jobs,” he said. “Government can kill jobs very effectively. Free enterprise will drive the unemployment rate down, if we will get out of the way.”

Clark County’s longtime government and business leaders say Madore’s abhorrence of the CRC blinds him to compromise.

Bob Schaefer, a founder of the CREDC who served eight years as a Democratic state lawmaker — including two as Speaker of the House — said Madore is obsessed with light rail.

“If you don’t agree with me on this,” Schaefer said, characterizing Madore’s viewpoint, “then I'm going to take my toys and go home.”

If the CREDC had agreed to be impartial on the bridge project, Madore said, he would have agreed to fund it at a level of $10,000 per year. “Just be neutral,” he said, describing his stance, “back off the politics and do your job of creating jobs.”

Nonpartisan

Back in Wolfe’s office, the twice-elected Port of Vancouver commissioner acknowledges the CRC’s warts. “It’s not being sold well by anybody,” he said. The project’s costliness, expected tolls and planning problems haven’t helped. “They don’t grasp that anybody would be against it,” Wolfe said of CRC’s managers. “They don’t know how to get down to those of us in the community.”

But he sees benefits: a sturdier bridge, faster freight movement, a stronger regional mass transit system to serve future generations.

And Wolfe, who now describes himself as nonpartisan (which also fits his position as an elected port commissioner), is part of a culture that honors pragmatism and political compromise. He’s part of a generation of moderate Republicans that included former governors Dan Evans of Washington and Tom McCall of Oregon, as well as Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield. “They’d be building this bridge,” Wolfe said.

But those days are gone.

What’s left is an ascendant political force that’s not yet fully articulated its vision for Clark County’s future, and a bridge that may — or may not — be built in Wolfe’s lifetime.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com