Clark County’s economic future was the official theme Thursday morning at The Columbian’s 2013 Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. But as sponsors, speakers and moderators took the microphone at the event, a letter sent by politicians two days ago kept finding its way to center stage.
The letter, from Clark County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore to the Columbia River Economic Development Council, stated the county was withdrawing its $100,000 per year, two year financial commitment to the economic development nonprofit because of the Columbia River Crossing project.
The two Republican commissioners are avowed critics of the transportation project, which would replace the current Interstate 5 Bridge with a new crossing that includes light rail and rebuild several miles of freeway interchanges on both sides of the river. The CREDC has supported the bridge project.
The third county commissioner, Democrat Steve Stuart, refused to have his name even appear on the Mielke/Madore letter.
At Thursday’s breakfast, keynote economists Tom Potiowsky and Randy Pozdena — one a light rail supporter the other a skeptic – both applauded the effectiveness of local economic development efforts. The third keynote panelist, nLight CEO Scott Keeney, said that replacing the bridge is key to keeping Clark County competitive for businesses – and that the current bridge’s shortcomings are already hampering local businesses.
That wasn’t all. Kim Capeloto, executive vice president at Riverview Community Bank, the event’s presenting sponsor, appeared to be subtly criticizing commissioners’ vote when he said that he believes in engaging with groups even when he disagrees with them on some points. “You will not see Riverview Bank back away from something we have committed to,” Capeloto said. “That is what being a true community partner is about.”
In a break-out panel that discussed growth opportunities for Southwest Washington, which followed the keynote breakfast conversation, BergerABAM vice president John White’s criticism was perhaps the most explicit.
“When I see things like the county commissioners did in the last couple of days, burning bridges to partnerships, it causes me great pains,” he said. “Partnerships develop over a long period of time. I hope they thought they were doing the right thing, maybe they thought they were being clever, but what they’re doing — to me — begins to destroy the very fabric of what we’re going to need, in terms of partnerships, going forward.”
Despite the frequent comments and asides about the CREDC, much of the four-hour economic forecast event did focus on the future. Experts from a swath of industries, including health-care, high-tech, real estate and shipping, presented guardedly optimistic takes on what’s next for Clark County.
The Columbian, which has been holding annual economic forecast events for more than 25 years, broke with recent history Thursday by inviting three panelists for a moderated discussion over breakfast, rather than featuring a single keynote speaker. Pozdena focused on Washington state issues influencing the local economy while Potowsky offered a Portland metro perspective and Keeney provided a Clark County view. Betsy Henning, president of the Vancouver-based AHA! communications firm, served as moderator.
Keeney, who followed the two economists, focused on the specific challenges and opportunities facing companies like his.
NLight is a designer and manufacturer of high-powered semiconductor lasers used in health care, manufacturing and defense. Keeney moved the business from Seattle to Vancouver more than a decade ago to be near other semiconductor-related businesses.
“That move was a great one. This has been a great place to grow a company,” he said. But to stay competitive and attractive to businesses, the county has to continue to improve education and tackle the bottleneck that the I-5 bridge has become, he added.
Keeney founded nConnect, a Vancouver nonprofit that mentors high-school students and helps them find science, technology, engineering and mathematics internships. Encouraging students to pursue these fields will give them profound opportunities and will also help employers in the future, Keeney said.
His fellow panelists seemed to present dueling political philosophies. Pozdena, senior economist with ECONorthwest, said he opposes government intervention in the economy and that he believes light rail on the Columbia River Crossing is an expensive and unnecessary option.
Potiowsky, chair of Portland State University’s economics department, offered this take on light rail: “You need to get over the notion that light-rail is a socialist scheme to undermine family values,” he said. (That line that brought applause and laughter from the crowd of over 400 people.)
Despite their differences, however, both economists agreed that Clark County is growing, albeit slowly, and has competitive advantages over Oregon and California – including its tax structure, and its collaborative approach to recruiting businesses to the region.
Collaboration was a recurring theme in the three breakout sessions that followed the keynote speech.
“We’re all pulling at the same time. We’re all moving and we’re all working,” said Kelly Parker, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, in the panel on Building Basic Industries.
“One thing that we continually see in those companies that are growing here, whether it’s Farwest Steel or Sapa Industries – is that one thing this community has to offer is its connections to people and networks,” echoed Todd Coleman, executive director of the Port of Vancouver.
In the New Areas of Promise panel, serial entrepreneur Steve Hix of Camas said Clark County is benefiting from years of collaborative effort.
When he co-founded InFocus Corp. in the 1980s, it was rare to collaborate with local colleges and nonprofits – which didn’t seem to spend much time thinking about how to support businesses, Hix said. “Nowadays we have total support,” he said, applauding the efforts of Washington State University Vancouver, in particular.
But White, the BergerABAM executive, cautioned against settling for past successes as good enough. Partnerships are key to Clark County’s future business growth, he said, but they must be accompanied by innovation and aggressive pursuit of local priorities.
“Complacency is poison,” White said.