Clark County economic recovery begins to clock in

January sees county bounce back from Great Recession's job losses; swan song of iconic businesses leaves a sad sting

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Business highlights

JANUARY

• Lacamas and iQ credit unions, both based in Clark County, agree to merge by July.

• Sparks Home Furnishings prepares to close after four generations of family ownership.

• Everyday Deals and Natural Grocers are coming, but Albertsons closes two stores.

FEBRUARY

• Nordstrom announces plan for January 2015 closure of Vancouver mall store.

• Plans set to demolish iconic Steakburger in Hazel Dell this summer.

• United Grain’s lockout of Longshore workers at Port of Vancouver passes one-year mark.

MARCH

• Clark County recovers all of the 10,000 jobs it lost to the Great Recession.

• Vancouver-based Papa Murphy’s files for public stock offering.

• A majority of Vancouver City Council members oppose proposed oil transfer terminal.

Ever since the Great Recession was declared officially over on Sept. 20, 2010, economists have talked about the slow pace of recovery in comparison to past recessions. In Clark County, where a largely middle-income, commuter-driven economy took a deeper dive than most in the Portland metropolitan area, it sometimes felt like the rising tide of that slow recovery would never raise our boats.

But in the year's first quarter, long-suffering Clark County residents finally had a recovery milestone to celebrate. State employment data released in March showed that the county had, in January, surpassed by 1,000 the number of jobs that existed at the start of the recession. In addition, the state Employment Security Department reported, the county's annualized growth rate of 4.2 percent was double that of the state as a whole.

State employment economist Scott Bailey added an important caveat: when the county's 1 percent annual population growth is factored in, the county would still need 5,000 more jobs to reach pre-recession employment levels. Still, the steady stream of new jobs was one of many signs in the first quarter of significant progress in the long slog toward a healthy economy.

Other numbers from the first quarter reveal a welcome decline in the number of families in financial distress. Foreclosures dropped by more than half from one year ago, while personal bankruptcies declined by 14 percent.

The overall improvement in county employment was a highlight in a fiscal quarter that was marked by big comings and goings in Clark County's retail sector; a dispiriting one-year anniversary of United Grain Corp.'s lockout of International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers at its Port of Vancouver export terminal; and growing questions about an oil transfer terminal that Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build at the Port of Vancouver.

The high-profile debate over that proposed oil terminal, now under review by the state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, was punctuated by statements from four of the Vancouver City Council's seven members in opposition to the proposed terminal in a debate certain to continue throughout the year.

"I've decided this is the wrong project, the wrong place, the wrong time," Councilor Jack Burkman said on March 17, a statement that opened the way for councilors Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Bart Hansen and Larry Smith to also give voice to their opposition to the $110 million project.

Businesses coming and going

Three planned retail closures announced during the quarter were attention-grabbers: Sparks Home Furnishings in downtown Vancouver, one of the county's oldest retailers, said it was closing after 132 years and ending four generations of family ownership; Nordstrom, at the Westfield Vancouver mall, said it would close early next year as it turns its focus to larger stores; and the iconic Steakburger in Hazel Dell, where generations of local children have feasted on burgers and played on a miniature golf course with its memorable "volcano" hole, said it would disappear to make room for a new retail development. It was hard for many not to feel a tinge of sadness over the changes that at once seemed regrettable but also inevitable in an era of rapid change in retailing, dining and leisure activities.

The local grocery market mixed it up a bit as well. In January, Albertsons closed two of its four remaining stores in Clark County, at 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd. and at 8300 N.E. 137th Ave. But at the same time, two new grocery retailers said they'd be competing for a share of the local market. Portland-based discount food seller Everyday Deals Inc. purchased the former IGA store at 2109 St. Johns Blvd. as an outlet selling outdated and postdated produce, and other food items. And upscale organic food chain, Natural Grocers, said it would open a new store this summer at 7604 N.E. Fifth St. in the Hazel Dell Square shopping center.

A very different food company made news during the quarter on Wall Street. Vancouver-based Papa Murphy's, which has carved a niche as the nation's biggest seller of take-and-bake pizzas, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public stock offering to raise up to $70 million for further expansion of its largely franchise-based business.

The company now has more than 1,400 outlets spread out over 38 states and two foreign countries but says it sees the potential to triple that number of outlets.

A letter to the Papa Murphy's board from franchise owners, who control 820 stores, that was obtained by The Columbian revealed deep concern by those owners about the company's direction before the stock offering was filed. Those owners raised specific complaints about poor communications between management and franchisees; declining profitability at franchise stores; and concerns about an emphasis on low-price offerings over quality ingredients. And the company's stock sale filing revealed that it lost $2.6 million on total revenues of $80.5 million in 2013, its third consecutive year of losses. The company showed earnings when its bottom line was adjusted for interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Mixed housing signals

While local real estate experts reported strong housing demand during the first quarter despite some challenging weather, the housing market delivered some mixed signals. The median home sales price rose by a healthy 7 percent. But home sales dropped during the quarter, reflecting a national trend that is causing some concern about the industry's trajectory.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that local real estate reports from some markets that rebounded early from the housing slump are showing year-over-year declines in pending home sales over the last two months. Nationally, new construction of single-family homes is increasing slowly, and in Clark County new construction dropped by 8.1 percent year-over-year in the first quarter. Analysts attribute the housing slowdown to a cutback on investor purchases of homes to rent or sell for a quick profit, as well as a rise in home prices and borrowing costs that have reduced the pool of potential buyers. The shrinking inventory of distressed homes in Clark County, as fewer homeowners lose homes to foreclosure, could be slowing the pace of sales here as well.

But one thing is certain: as long as more people want to move to Clark County, there will be demand for places to live. And in the first quarter, they kept coming, with almost 4,000 out-of-county drivers getting local licenses.