Lisa Nisenfeld will depart as president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council at the end of September after a two-year tenure marked by conflict with Clark County commissioners over the Columbia River Crossing, a highly secretive courtship of Nike and progress on implementing a countywide economic development plan.
Nisenfeld, 59, is set to begin work in October as head of Oregon’s troubled Employment Department, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Monday. Nisenfeld will oversee some 1,300 employees, a giant leap from the seven-person staff at CREDC.
The CREDC will start an immediate search to replace Nisenfeld, said Bill Dudley, a Vancouver attorney who is board chairman of the 140-member public-private economic development and job recruitment organization.
“We’re going to miss her, but I think it’s a great opportunity for someone with her skills,” Dudley said. Nisenfeld, he said, had “strengthened the relationship with our partners, taking communication to a whole new level, which has been great.”
Nisenfeld, who lives in Clark County but will move to Oregon, said she hadn’t been looking for a job but was recruited by Kitzhaber and his staff. She concluded the Oregon job was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“It’s really about the opportunity to work with great people and with a governor who is redesigning the workforce system to make it as effective as it can be for businesses and workers,” Nisenfeld said.
She said her career, which included work in both economic development and workforce training, gives her a wide range of skills for heading the vast statewide agency.
“There probably aren’t that many people who have experience in both workforce and economic development functions,” Nisenfeld said. “I’ve spent my career at that intersection.”
Before becoming CREDC’s fourth president in September 2011, Nisenfeld spent seven years as executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. She also worked at the Portland Development Commission.
Nisenfeld’s time at CREDC’s helm was marked by high-profile issues and controversies. Few people took note of the organization’s support for the Columbia River Crossing project until David Madore, a strident opponent of that project’s light-rail component, won election to the county commission. Once in office, Madore and Commissioner Tom Mielke voted to remove $200,000 in previously approved funding for the CREDC unless the council withdrew its support for the bridge project that included light rail.
The CREDC refused to budge, and the controversy dragged on for months before a political compromise that restored most of the funding was finally reached. Nisenfeld declined to comment in detail about the matter. “We always took the high road on that,” she said.
The CREDC worked in secrecy for months on a high-profile recruitment of Nike, which was testing the waters last year for an expansion site away from its headquarters near Beaverton, Ore. That recruitment fizzled when the Oregon Legislature approved tax law changes favorable to Nike in a hastily called special session of its Legislature in exchange for a promise from Nike that it would add new jobs in Oregon.
The organization was more successful in working with Integra, a Portland-based telecom, to relocate its headquarters and at least 500 workers to Vancouver by May of next year.
Nisenfeld said CREDC learned important lessons from those two recruitments.
“Some, like Integra, will work out and others, like Nike, won’t,” Nisenfeld said. “We have to respond to all of them like they will work out.”
Clark County can’t offer the financial incentives available in many jurisdictions, which puts it at a disadvantage with corporate number-crunchers. The county’s “sweet spot,” Nisenfeld believes, is in attracting midsized companies whose leaders are looking for an area with good schools and an excellent quality of life. “We’re not better than Portland but we are a distinct option,” she said.
Nisenfeld said she is pleased with CREDC’s progress in implementing an economic development plan, which was completed in late 2011.
“I think we’ve been able to take that plan from theory into practice,” she said.
As she leaves, Nisenfeld said she remains frustrated by the lack of progress on transportation issues.
“I’m very concerned that Clark County has a lot to lose by isolating itself more and more from the metro area. That’s what will happen when traffic on the bridge becomes more objectionable,” she said.
Nisenfeld will enter a highly volatile environment at Oregon’s Employment Department.
A state review of the Oregon Employment Department uncovered distrust, dysfunction and “warring factions” led by the agency’s top deputies, The Oregonian reported a month ago.
The review team said communication breakdowns and escalating tensions fostered a divisive environment at the Employment Department. The department’s director announced her retirement after the inquiry was launched, the deputy left abruptly for a lower-paying state job, and the agency’s No. 3 person was fired before the director left on June 30, The Oregonian reported. In her new job, Nisenfeld will oversee workforce services to businesses and job seekers, specialized programs such as those serving veterans, unemployment insurance, and labor market information.
Kitzhaber said he will submit Nisenfeld for Senate confirmation in September, with a proposed start date of Oct. 1.
“Lisa brings a wealth of workforce and economic development experience from both Oregon and Washington and a track record of success,” Kitzhaber noted in his statement.
Columbian staff writer Cami Joner contributed to this story.