The divorce is final.
Clark County government and its erstwhile economic development contractor — the Columbia River Economic Development Council — have officially parted ways, Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the CREDC, said Monday.
The mutual agreement makes permanent a rift that opened when Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke halted funding to the council unless the Vancouver-based nonprofit agreed to drop its support of the Columbia River Crossing, a proposed replacement Interstate 5 bridge that includes light rail. Their action canceled an earlier county commitment to contribute $200,000 over two years to the CREDC.
Nisenfeld said that based on meetings between council board members and Madore — including one Friday between Madore and CREDC board chairman Bill Dudley — the parties have "determined that we will agree to disagree and that the county will no longer be a member of the CREDC."
For the CREDC, she said, the decision means that "we're just going to move forward."
The unusual split occurs as disagreement intensifies over which job-growth and transportation programs the region should pursue. Anti- and pro-Columbia River Crossing groups are squaring off locally and in the Washington Legislature. Meanwhile, the CREDC — which counts a wide range of Clark County businesses and governments among its members — is working on implementing a new growth plan. The 133-page plan, released in its final form in September 2011, calls for "cooperation and information-sharing" among local governments, ports and economic development groups to accomplish numerous tasks. Those tasks include increasing Washington State University Vancouver's role in business development, re
cruiting information-technology companies, growing existing businesses, building up shovel-ready land for employers and supporting infrastructure, including the CRC.
Not 'a side issue'
In their letter to the CREDC saying they'd halted funding, Madore and Mielke said, in part, they hoped the cut in financial support wouldn't be permanent. The commissioners said they hoped the CREDC board "will act appropriately and end its advocacy for CRC and light rail."
In a phone interview Monday, Madore said the CREDC does good work. However, his disagreement with the agency has to do with the CRC's 116-foot bridge height, which could cost several Columbia River manufacturers up to $116 million in lost profits.
"That represents hundreds of jobs" and hundreds of millions of dollars lost by those businesses because of CRC's bridge height, Madore said. "That's not been a side issue."
And the impacts to those businesses "undoes so much of the good that the CREDC has done," Madore said. "That's where our difference is."
Madore has also previously said the CREDC has supported the CRC at the expense of its core mission of economic development.
Thompson Metal Fab, Oregon Iron Works and Greenberry Industrial all stand to take a financial hit if the proposed I-5 Bridge replacement is built with 116 feet of headroom, as planned. The existing span connecting Vancouver and Portland offers as much as 178 feet of clearance when lifted.
To mitigate that impact, the CRC expects to pay all three manufacturers for lost earnings. Mitigation talks are under way. Bob Schaefer, an attorney for Thompson Metal Fab, said the company supports the CRC "in that we believe it's critical to the environment of this community." However, he said, the company believes the family-wage jobs it provides "are critical to the community."
Schaefer said that, with the 116-foot bridge height, the only solution for Thompson is to relocate. In that case, Schaefer said, the company would seek another location in Clark County.
Dudley, the CREDC board chairman, was unavailable for comment Monday. Brian Wolfe, a commissioner for the Port of Vancouver, which helps fund the CREDC, said the notion that the agency has neglected its core mission is "baloney.
"That's a figment of somebody's imagination," said Wolfe, a CREDC founder.
'Core mission' in question
Madore said he asked the CREDC to be "neutral on" CRC and to focus on its mission. "They are adamant that they are going to push this project," Madore said. "I'm thinking, 'OK, don't forget about your core mission, because this project undoes it.'"
Nisenfeld has publicly stated that the CREDC does support an upgrade to the crossing, but that it has never come out in favor of light rail or tolling.
Wolfe said the CREDC — launched in 1982 and representing a broad number of local governments and businesses — has "never had much to do with the CRC" and has instead always emphasized growing businesses and recruiting companies.
Wolfe said there have been disagreements about the CREDC's direction before. However, the funding cut by Clark County government, and the subsequent breaking of its relationship with the CREDC, is unprecedented, he said.
The loss of $200,000 to the CREDC is a blow to the agency's "land for jobs" effort, aimed at offering more shovel-ready land to employers, according to Nisenfeld. "It's going to slow us down," she said. "I don't see it as fatal. I don't see that slowdown as being permanent."
The agency had planned to hire someone in January to implement the campaign for shovel-ready land, but that's been put on hold because of the county's funding cut.
Nevertheless, Nisenfeld said, "There are businesses and others who are stepping forward to help." Although no firm commitments have been made, she said, the goal is to ensure the land-for-jobs work continues.
And the CREDC will continue to help businesses in unincorporated areas despite the loss of a contract for economic development services with Clark County government.
"Unincorporated Clark County has industrial land that is a jobs resource for all of the citizens of Clark County, including the cities and others," Nisenfeld said. "If a business in (unincorporated Clark County) calls us and needs assistance, they're absolutely going to get it."