CRC's collapse leaves behind shock and awe

But housing, jobs continue to provide hope to Clark County

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

The worlds of business and politics were deeply intertwined in this year's second quarter.

The quarter's biggest story, economically and politically, came on a late Saturday night in the last weekend of June. That's when the Washington Senate adjourned without taking action on funding of the gargantuan Columbia River Crossing project that had bitterly divided Clark County residents.

The county's business booster groups and major employers saw the project's collapse as a tragic loss of a once-in-a-lifetime public works project that would have fed countless payrolls. But some downtown businesses welcomed an end to years of uncertainty. Political opponents of the project and its light-rail component immediately began launching new ideas for transportation improvements other than rail, despite a lack of funding for any of the suggested alternatives.

Second quarter highlights

APRIL

• PeaceHealth suspends talks with Catholic Health Initiative on a business partnership.

• Portland-based telecom company Integra announces plans to move to Vancouver in 2014.

• Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies propose opening an oil transfer facility at Port of Vancouver.

MAY

• Opening of BevMo and Total Wine & More liquor stores ramps up price competition.

• Sharp Corp. consolidates operations into one building.

• Fisher Investment discloses plans for second building in Camas.

JUNE

• United Grain, Longshore union dispute gains international attention.

• Economic recovery continues with an increase in construction and declining unemployment.

• Legislature ends without funding Columbia River Crossing, killing project.

In many ways, the months of April, May and June delivered steady doses of good news in a county that has lagged the metropolitan region in economic recovery. Housing continued its strong recovery throughout the quarter. Portland-based Integra, a telecommunications company serving businesses in many states, announced plans to relocate headquarters -- with hundreds of jobs -- to east Vancouver in 2014. And Fisher Investments President Ken Fisher told The Columbian that his company would build a second building at its Camas site. While Fisher hasn't moved his company's headquarters from California, adding a new building strengthens the company's presence and adds hundreds of skilled jobs.

The unemployment rate dropped steadily and now hovers around 9 percent. The county added 2,800 jobs in May, and job growth increased to an annualized rate of 2.1 percent -- much closer to a sustainable level that accounts for population growth.

But not all news was good on the jobs front. Huge health care nonprofit PeaceHealth, based in Vancouver, abandoned its talks of a partnership with Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiative that could have brought more jobs to Clark County. United Grain Corp.'s lockout of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members, which began on Feb. 27, dragged on through

the quarter with no resolution in sight. The labor dispute expanded to Portland in May, when Columbia Grain also locked out union workers.

Sharp Corp., struggling financially at its Japan-based corporate level, retrenched locally by consolidating its Camas staff from two buildings into just one.

Commercial builders won an extended fee holiday for many commercial buildings in unincorporated Clark County. Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke provided the votes needed to approve the measure, which received mixed reviews from builders. The county estimates a $4.8 million hit to the general fund over 18 months. Madore said he wanted to keep the waiver in place until unemployment numbers in Clark County drop below the state's level.

Most encouraging is the strong, steady resurgence of the housing market, long a vital industry in Clark County's economy. Home sales increased by 21 percent over the same quarter a year ago, and the median price of $221,500 was up 14 percent in the same time period. Sales for the month of June, a popular month to buy and sell, were the highest since 2007. Increased demand for apartments stimulated construction of new buildings from the former Burgerville site in downtown Vancouver to 192nd Avenue and many places in between.

Still, the recession-era collapse in housing prices continued to create anguish for many Clark County families and long-anticipated foreclosures finally worked their way through the pipeline. There were about 680 foreclosures during the quarter, a 73 percent increase from the same period a year earlier.

The free market worked wonders during the quarter for those who enjoy a spot of beer, wine or hard liquor from time to time. Two large liquor retailers, BevMo and Total Wine & More, arrived in Clark County to ramp up competition and drive down prices. The expanded liquor marketplace quieted skeptics of the voter-approved privatization of liquor sales, with the state reporting an overall increase in sales since the law took effect in mid-2012.