Economic recovery is under way in Clark County. Unfortunately, the progress is painfully slow. One apt comparison would be one of the Apollo space program’s journeys to the moon. Economically speaking, our community has left the atmosphere of the Great Recession, but a long, dark and uncertain passage remains ahead.
The best news reported in Aaron Corvin’s story in Wednesday’s Columbian is that Clark County added 2,500 jobs in the year that ended in February. This 2 percent growth in jobs is ahead of the national rate of 1.5 percent. Expectations are that the local unemployment rate in February (after being revised to account for unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon) will likely be around 11 percent. Although double digits always are daunting, that’s a fairly good improvement over the revised January rate of 11.4 percent.
Many of the trends in the local economy occur almost on their own. A few adjustments can occur (say, PeaceHealth moves its corporate office here, or economic development strategies are modified), but let’s face it: Southwest Washingtonians still do a lot of waiting and hoping.
Other influences, though, are within the control of public officials, and one example was revealed in Corvin’s story. How we use available land will go a long way toward determining if that painfully slow progress can accelerate. As we’ve editorialized before, too much local land is developed for residential use while too little “land for jobs” is prepared so that new businesses will be lured here and current local companies can expand.
Local land-use policies have favored residential development for well-intended reasons, to take advantage of tougher regulations across the river. But as Corvin reported, “a dependence on homebuilding — driven by land availability and by the county’s role as an absorber of suburban population growth in the Portland metro area — hasn’t helped” in Clark County’s effort to push this recovery into second or third gear.
It’s one thing to have more people live here, but a far better strategy is to also have those same people work here. To that end, the Columbia River Economic Development Council has increased its emphasis on land for jobs. Lisa Nisenfeld, council president, correctly notes that providing “most of our prime land simply for homebuilding may not be in our best interest, if we want more people to stay and work in Clark County (and) not have to commute over the bridge.”
This is not to say our local economy has not diversified in recent years. Encouragingly, several different sectors are reflected in the recent year’s jobs growth. Manufacturing, nondurable goods and corporate office employment have shown solid gains. That’s what has boosted our jobs growth to a more rapid pace than what is seen in other parts of Southwest Washington, most notably in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.
We are not Seattle, and never will be. We don’t have the major offices and plants of Boeing, Amazon, Google and other high-tech giants. But we are Portland, in a way; about 60,000 of us work in Portland. And to seize more economic autonomy — to move beyond being a mere suburb and being one of the largest workforces in a state that is not our own — requires greater development of land where people work rather than live.
It’s good to see the local economic recovery under way. It will be even better when we can call that recovery our very own.