Location a key factor in recent fiscal quarter

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Highlights of third quarter

JULY

• Port of Vancouver commission approves Tesoro-Savage oil-transfer terminal amid strong community opposition.

• Boeing subsidiary Insitu, a growing Southwest Washington employer, breaks ground on a 120,000-square-foot production facility in the Klickitat County town of Bingen.

• Housing continued its strong recovery with a 22 percent one-month increase in sales and a 19 percent year-over-year increase in median sales price.

• Wal-Mart opens its first Clark County small-concept Neighborhood Market, at Vancouver Plaza.

AUGUST

• Lisa Nisenfeld says she'll leave her job as president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council on Oct. 1.

• PeaceHealth says it will cut 500 jobs systemwide as it faces a $130 million budget deficit. Cuts include 340 positions in Southwest Washington, with half of those as layoffs.

• In Hazel Dell, iconic Smokey's Pizza closes its doors and another icon, Steakburger, is up for sale. Chuck's Produce opens a Salmon Creek store, its second.

• The Port of Vancouver faces a citizen complaint alleging public meetings law violations in its approval of the Tesoro-Savage proposal, and a waterfront developer raises concerns about the project's impact on redevelopment plans.

SEPTEMBER

• State grain inspectors, saying they fear for their personal safety, temporarily halt grain inspections at the United Grain terminal, embroiled in a labor dispute with the longshore union.

• Port of Camas/Washougal unveils plans for riverfront commercial and open space development at the former Hambleton Mill site in Washougal.

• The state auditor's office says it will review possible public meetings law violations by the Port of Vancouver commission with the Tesoro-Savage approval.

• Columbia River Crossing gains momentum with funding OK for light-rail operations and Coast Guard approval of bridge height, but the Oregon Legislature takes no action, leaving the project in limbo.

If there's a single thread running through the business news affecting Clark County during the last fiscal quarter, it is the importance of location.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that the county's valuable location, a river apart from a healthy urban core, is becoming a magnet for increasingly scarce job-rich industries. Rather, the county's new economic advantage is its ideal location between the energy-rich U.S. Midwest and energy-thirsty Asia. And, that a train track runs through it and a river runs next to it.

On the oil issue, the Port of Vancouver commissioners unanimously approved in July the leasing of 42 acres for an oil transfer terminal, a deal that's worth $45 million to the port in its initial 10 years. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build what would be the largest such facility in the Pacific Northwest, handling up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day from the Bakken oil shale formation in North Dakota.

That approval got sidetracked when the port faced questions by The Columbian and a legal challenge over the commission's closed executive session held before its vote, and the commission approved the deal a second time following another public hearing last week. Now the proposal must undergo an examination by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which would make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

On the coal front, a $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminals facility proposed near Longview would export coal arriving by train through Clark County from Montana and Wyoming. With a handling capacity of up to 44 million tons of coal per year, it's one of three large coal terminals under consideration in Washington and Oregon.

Labor dispute lingers

Another story linked to Asian trade — that of the ongoing labor dispute between United Grain, at the Port of Vancouver, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 — flared up again during the year's third quarter. United Grain locked 44 ILWU members out of the terminal on Feb. 27 and raised allegations that a longshore worker had sabotaged company property.

But in September, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office said it wouldn't file charges against the longshore worker, Todd Walker.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty said in a letter to Vancouver police that it's impossible in the video of the Dec. 22, 2012, incident to identify the person captured on the video or to be certain "that the person in the video is actually damaging the machine."

But last week, the ongoing skirmishes between the union and United Grain gave way to cautious optimism that a new round of negotiations could finally resolve the long-running dispute.

That river that creates Clark County's commercial ties to Asia also separates us from our neighbors to the south. And that leads to another location-related controversy, involving distances near rather than far.

The resuscitated Columbia River Crossing, a project supported by the county's key business organizations but bitterly opposed by some politicians and citizens, gained momentum throughout the quarter as the U.S. Coast Guard, C-Tran, and the state of Oregon methodically eliminated financial and political obstacles to construction.

The build-up ended with a whimper when the Oregon Legislature ignored the issue in its special session that opened Sept. 30. The CRC's pulse is weakening, but nobody's calling the project dead just yet.

Housing industry recovery

One of the quarter's top stories was the housing industry's strong, steady recovery, with sharp increases in home construction, sales and prices. In addition, the number of homes in foreclosure dropped dramatically, with the improvement due in part to rising prices that allowed more struggling homeowners to sell without going into foreclosure. Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department, raised a concern that the burst in apartment construction, the strongest since the late 1990s, could be ushering in the next boom-and-bust wave in the cyclical apartment industry. "Multifamily (construction) has gotten a little over the top," he said.

In July, the Boeing subsidiary Insitu, a drone-maker based in the Columbia River Gorge town of Bingen, broke ground on a production facility in Bingen, an event that drew Inslee. The fast-growing company has employees in many Columbia Gorge communities, as well as in Clark County.

The following month, PeaceHealth announced it would cut 500 positions systemwide, including 340 in Southwest Washington, as it works to close a $130 million budget deficit. PeaceHealth's loss of a contract with Kaiser to serve its Clark County patients contributed to those cuts. Legacy Health Systems, meanwhile, expanded some services after it secured the contract with Kaiser.

There were signs of life and change in the retail and housing sectors as well.

Shoppers got new options during the quarter. Chuck's Produce opened a store in the Salmon Creek area, the second for the locally owned company. WalMart introduced the first of its Neighborhood Market stores in Clark County, opening one of the smaller-scale locations at Vancouver Plaza.

And finally, is was a time when some symbols of the county's early suburban era disappeared, or were on the verge of fading into history. In Hazel Dell, iconic Smokey's Pizza closed its doors. And after 51 years, the equally iconic Steakburger & Golf-O-Rama restaurant is up for sale and is likely to be swallowed up for another commercial use.

"It is definitely part of Hazel Dell," Bob Kadow, 72, a 1959 graduate of Fort Vancouver High School, said of Steakburger. "I get tired of people tearing down all of our old buildings and putting in new stuff."