The Big Divide: The road ahead

Growth prospects promising, with or without the Columbia River Crossing

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

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.

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.

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and the gathering clouds look fraught with rain. But things are looking bright — and busy — at the Port of Vancouver.

Earth movers trundle over mounds of dirt where roads and utilities will open the way for new businesses. 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 isn’t the only bright spot in a potentially promising time for Clark County’s economy.

Regional health care nonprofit PeaceHealth, with its headquarters in Vancouver, expects its workforce at its east Vancouver shared services center to grow to 600 employees this summer, with plans to add more than 300 workers over the next two years. Meanwhile, Integra — a major player in the competitive telecom industry — will move its headquarters and at least 500 workers from Portland to Vancouver by mid-2014.

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. People are still hurting.

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.

Political fights over the $3.4 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project have slowed the work of the nonprofit Columbia River Economic Development Council, the county’s leading jobs promoter and business recruiter. Clark County government’s decision to halt its $200,000 commitment to the organization forced the economic development council to delay its “land for jobs” initiative, aimed at creating more projects like the Centennial Industrial Park. The economic development council hopes to make up the loss mostly through additional private-sector contributions.

The negative attention the CRC placed on the economic development council has prompted some county residents to question the agency’s value. The focus, in other words, 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.

And despite the drumbeat by community leaders that the bridge is vital to Clark County’s economic recovery, residents appear to hold a different view. A poll conducted for The Columbian, published on Monday, suggests that Clark County residents don’t see the bridge as a make-or-break project for economic growth. In the poll, only 45 percent of respondents believe the CRC would benefit Clark County’s economy.

“If there’s an economic development component, it’s not getting out there in the bloodstream,” Bob Moore, president of Portland-based Moore Information, which conducted the poll, said of the bridge replacement project that includes light rail.

Curtis Shuck, director of economic development and facilities for the Port of Vancouver, would rather concentrate on the task that’s immediately before him. Shuck, a volunteer ski team coach who exudes a go-getter attitude, embraces a new countywide growth plan developed by the Columbia River Economic Development Council and endorsed by most of the county’s government bodies, and major civic and business organizations.

The plan, Shuck said, challenges community leaders to look beyond their own immediate interests and to increase their collaboration for the greater good.

“Economic development,” Shuck said, as he stood watching the Centennial Industrial Park thrum with construction activity, “is a team sport.”

‘At the beginning stage’

As Clark County has adapted to its evolving role in the Pacific Northwest economy — as a natural resource-based economy, a wartime industrial powerhouse, a suburban bedroom community, a technology manufacturing hub — it’s finding its footing for another transition.

In fact, the plan advanced by the economic development council marks yet another call to engineer a massive shift in the county’s business landscape.

photoBonnie Moore, CREDC

“We’re trying to diversify into a knowledge-based economy,” said Bonnie Moore, vice president for business growth and innovation for the economic development council.

Suffice it to say, it’s no small task.

“We’re really at the beginning stage to try to develop this plan,” Moore said.

The Clark County Economic Development Plan is a new, 133-page pro-growth manifesto for rejuvenating the county’s economy and reinforcing the region against the next crash.

In late 2010, the Columbia River Economic Development Council hired TIP Strategies — an Austin, Texas-based market research and economic development consultant — to produce a countywide business growth plan.

It was the first fresh examination of the county’s strengths and weaknesses since 2001. The plan was completed in late 2011.

The county’s strengths and opportunities, according to TIP Strategies, include its growing health care sector, strong school districts and its “untapped technology” potential. Its weaknesses and threats, however, stand out in the form of its “small share of college graduates,” its absence of a unique image and its lack of shovel-ready industrial sites.

The plan said the region’s economic development partners “cannot afford to be anything but aggressive.” And it called on regional leaders to carry out numerous actions, including establishing the county as an information-technology hub; expanding the influence of Washington State University Vancouver and of Clark College in the local economy, including building a business-oriented university research park; and growing existing businesses, recruiting companies and promoting entrepreneurship in target industries such as technology services and products, agricultural processing, health care management, wealth management services, and logistics and distribution.

Community leaders bought into the plan and began breaking it into digestible chunks, crafting action plans and assigning work groups to carry them out.

But the effort ran into a roadblock.

The decision in January by Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke to eliminate county government’s funding of the economic development council diverted attention away from the growth plan. Madore, who pushed to halt funding to the Columbia River Economic Development Council because of the agency’s support of the Columbia River Crossing, told The Columbian that he hasn’t fully read the plan. Some citizens praised the county’s action: Ron Rowland, a county resident, wrote in an email to Mielke that the money would be better used “fixing the roads that are cracking and falling apart.”

Nevertheless, the CREDC — a 31-year-old public-private partnership staffed by six people — still receives financial support and guidance from a broad base of 135 local governments and businesses. Not all of them support the Columbia River Crossing project, but many project critics separate their views on that transportation project from the economic development council’s broader work to help local businesses grow and to recruit corporations from out of state.

Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver, for instance, opposes the Columbia River Crossing because of its inclusion of light rail, which he sees as far too costly and inefficient.

Nevertheless, he said, the Columbia River Economic Development Council “has import beyond the CRC.” Oliver added, “They are promoting development that impacts all citizens, and that needs ongoing support.”

‘That’s the real struggle’

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.

“We are still a small institution,” he said of the growing university, which got its start as a branch campus at Clark College in 1989.

Yet, there are opportunities in the short term for the university to work with the CREDC to commercialize university research and to help drive economic growth, Netzhammer said.

Those include upcoming events designed to spur innovation by showcasing research efforts by WSUV and local companies, and by bringing together software and Internet companies and students and faculty with WSUV’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program.

Not all of the plan’s goals involve land planning or breaking ground. Some are about building relationships.

photoLisa Nisenfeld is leaving her job as president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council to become director of Oregon’s Employment Department, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced on Monday.

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Earlier this year, Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, joined the board of Greater Portland Inc., a public-private partnership that promotes business across seven counties in the Portland-Vancouver area. It was an important move in satisfying the plan’s call for greater cooperation among regional economic development leaders.

Sean Robbins, president and CEO of Greater Portland Inc., said global companies hunting for the best expansion sites make their decisions on a regional basis, with an eye on their long-term employment and capital needs. He added: “When you’re competing globally for these companies, the little tiny divisions that locally divide us mean nothing to the client.”

But the Columbia River Crossing is no minor tear in the fabric of the community.

The gut-wrenching change it proposes may continue to cast a cloud over the broader growth plan led by the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

In any case, Clark County will eventually have to come to grips with how it wants to grow and whether the CRC, in one form or another, will be part of that growth, according to Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver. Population growth and demographic changes ensure those issues aren’t going away, he said.

The looming questions are: Who will pay and how much? Who will benefit? And will there be room for compromise? “That’s the real struggle,” Stephan said.

For its part, the Columbia River Economic Development Council says it will press on with its new growth plan, regardless of the Columbia River Crossing’s fate.

The CRC, while important, is “really peripheral to our day-to-day work,” said Nisenfeld, the CREDC’s president.

Of course, the economic development council’s new growth plan isn’t everything, either.

Change and randomness often rule.

Sometimes global forces have other designs that don’t fit a local strategy.

And, when an opportunity that doesn’t necessarily match your plan arises, you don’t always succeed in going after it. The CREDC certainly understands that, having joined the city of Vancouver, the state of Washington and others in a failed effort last year to land an expansion of Nike in Clark County.

The experience with Project Impact — the code name attached to the Nike recruitment effort — also reinforced the economic development council’s sense that its best play is to help bolster existing companies, Nisenfeld said, and to recruit midsize corporations led by people who want to relocate to Clark County for its attractions, including its strong schools and quality of life.

Integra, the telecom firm planning to relocate its headquarters and 500 jobs from Portland to Vancouver next year, exemplifies the type of midsize corporation the CREDC will increasingly court, Nisenfeld said.

photoScott Bailey

Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Washington Employment Security Department, said the economic development council’s plan reflects the agency’s growing sophistication. Clark County doesn’t possess “a lot of the upper-end jobs” that you find in, say, Seattle and King County, said Bailey, who has tracked the local economy since 1989. And that’s why the CREDC’s plan is so aggressive about cultivating software start-ups as part of a larger attempt to transform the county into a hub for information-technology employers.

It’s important to remember, too, Bailey said, that Clark County has previously acted with foresight.

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.”

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