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Clark County newcomers Michael and Sheryl Hendrix are still unpacking the boxes in their newly built Camas house. But they are already feeling at home.
Since moving to the small town in June to be near their first-born grandchild and their adult children in Portland, the Seattle transplants are amazed by the friendly people in Camas.
"Perfect strangers smile at you when you pass them on the street," said Michael Hendrix, a commercial pilot for Alaska Airlines.
His job transfer here makes Hendrix representative of the key demographic behind a new wave of Clark County newcomers who are helping the area recover from its bruising housing bust. Realtors say transplanted workers from other states and the Puget Sound area are the largest segment of the housing market and help explain the surge in new residents indicated by a recent driver's license report.
In November, Clark County saw a 37 percent year-over-year increase in drivers trading in their out-of-town licenses as compared to November 2012, the state Department of Licensing reported this week. The monthly figure continued an upward trend that has registered an 11.5 percent increase in new residents so far this year. From January through November, there were 13,323 people who exchanged out-of-town licenses in Clark County, up from the 11,950 people who sought licenses here during the same 11 months in 2012. While numbers have fluctuated over the past five years, license transfers are up by 7.5 percent from the same period in 2011. The state does not have reliable numbers on people who give up licenses in Clark County to move elsewhere, but the county continues to see steady growth in population and employment.
The numbers suggest that the county's assets — including relatively low housing prices for new homebuyers, a tax system that is favorable to affluent retirees, and quality schools that appeal to families — are again drawing newcomers as the economy improves. But some now see that the county is adding jobs that are bringing new people here.
"We're just attracting more people to the area, due to job relocations," said Terry Wollam, a Realtor with Re/Max Equity Group.
Realtors are also seeing more Oregon- and California-based baby boomers and retirees seeking shelter in Clark County because Washington has no income tax.
"Their financial advisers tell them to do it without hesitation," said Patrick Ginn, a Vancouver broker who specializes in high-end home sales. "A lot are tax-driven retirees relocating from Portland and Lake Oswego to downsize and save on the state income tax. It gives them a 10 percent increase in income regardless of what the stock market does."
Most from Oregon
Oregon supplied the majority of Clark County newcomers in November, a period in which 528 Oregonians turned in their driver's licenses for local ones. California drivers were the second-largest group, with 179 newcomers; 57 came from Arizona, 48 were from Texas and 31 were from Utah. In all, Clark County received new residents from 45 other states and two countries — Canada and Mexico — in November.
The county's unemployment rate is still the highest in the Portland-Vancouver region. Still, employment experts say the trend could lead to a healthier economy as the newcomers bring purchasing power, job skills and entrepreneurial pursuits from outside the community.
"I can tell you we've landed eight new companies this year," said Bonnie Moore, vice president of business growth and innovation for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Clark County's nonprofit business recruiter.
Of the eight, the largest recruit is Portland-based telecommunications company Integra, which in April announced plans to move its headquarters north of the state border to the former Hewlett-Packard campus in east Vancouver. The company is set to open its Vancouver site in June 2014. It will house at least 500 of its 1,763 employees.
One of the reasons Integra selected the Vancouver site was because "roughly half" of its metro-area employees already lived on the Washington side of the border, said Felicity O'Herron, the company's senior vice president of human resources.
Moore said she frequently sees smaller Portland-based companies relocate to Clark County to be closer to employees who live in the community.
"A few of the small- and medium-sized companies I work with (between 20 and 250 employees) have relocated here for the benefit of their employees living here," she said.
Job numbers skewed
But the influx of new jobs can distort unemployment figures, which continued to improve this year, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department. Its latest report showed Clark County added 4,100 jobs from January through October.
But some question whether those jobs represent additional positions, given the growing number of newcomers and companies relocating to the area. Employees who are shifted from another part of the country to Clark County still get counted as new hires by Washington's employment agency, said Paul Dennis, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Council.
It's a natural assumption, Dennis said, that these new jobs mean that local unemployed workers are getting jobs. "I don't think that's the case," he said. "I really think it's new individuals transferring in, so our job numbers increase."
That's why jobs added don't always translate to a corresponding decrease in the number of unemployed residents, Dennis said. He said many companies are still hesitant to hire in the face of the rising cost of health care and other benefits.
"Employers are still a little reluctant to go on a hiring spree," Dennis said.
Highest test scores
Wollam said the most selective new residents are families with school-aged children. Most want to be located within the boundaries of schools with the highest test scores, especially a handful of secondary schools that are driving relocations to areas such as Camas and Vancouver's Felida and Salmon Creek neighborhoods.
These communities also have the highest income per capita, according to Wollam, and homes in the areas command selling prices that are up to 25 percent higher than in other parts of the county. High schools that are leading the trend include Camas High School in Camas and Skyview and Columbia River high schools in the Felida and Salmon Creek areas.
"Near Heritage High School (north Orchards area), a 2,500-square-foot home is going to be around $350,000," he said. A similar-sized new house near Camas High School would command between $400,000 and $450,000, Wollam said.