Strictly Business: Drafting off booms in Portland

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
photoCami Joner, Columbian business reporter

Seems like it never fails. Clark County almost always begins to see a bump in company relocations from Portland around the second or third year into its economic recovery.

This upswing is no different, with transfers from at least three good-sized firms and a handful of smaller ones in the last three years. With each announcement, community and business leaders recite from a time-worn list of Clark County assets: good schools, housing considered “affordable” for the area, no personal income tax (a big motivator for company owners) and proximity to Portland International Airport.

Make no mistake, attracting new businesses here is awesome after years in the doldrums. But when it comes to community assets, do we really beat out the incentives in Portland, home to hip urban districts, a higher level of cultural activities and the allure of business financing programs that are backed by Oregon state lottery dollars? Probably not. More likely, the delayed response of a burst of new jobs after a downturn means that Portland’s own boom is pushing a few employers our way.

Still, Vancouver does OK if you look at the recent list of firms making plans to move here from Portland. Among them:

• Banfield Pet Hospital, which announced plans this month to relocate its 560-employee headquarters from Portland to a 250,000-square-foot office complex in the Columbia Tech Center development by late 2015. The company bills itself as the nation’s largest veterinary practice.

• Portland-based telecommunications company Integra, in the midst of making Vancouver its home base with a 500-employee transfer to space on the former Hewlett-Packard campus in east Vancouver.

• Portland-based Evergreen Plastic Container, which revealed last week plans to move its plastic bottle-making operation and 30 employees to Vancouver by the end of the year.

These kinds of news stories generally prompt a round or two of self back-patting among local business leaders and politicos as they point to their list.

But if you ask a company leader why he or she is moving a business to Vancouver, the answer is often much more simplistic. Perhaps they live here, their children attend school here, and they’re growing tired of the daily stop-and-go commute to Portland.

Perhaps, he or she foresees a business expansion and benefits in “owning versus renting” the company’s facility, which is what Evergreen Plastic Container owner Vincent Do said of his company’s decision to move.

To put it in perspective, Clark County is good, but the recent rush of companies moving north isn’t necessarily verification of the community’s superiority in business recruitment, said Eric Fuller, a local commercial real estate broker.

Often, it’s just a function of real estate market forces, as Portland lands incoming companies that create higher demand (and a shrinking supply) for business space, said Fuller, who represented the plastics company in its $1.24 million purchase of 5.2 acres off Northeast Minnehaha and 47th Avenue.

“It all stems from a gradual upturn in the market and we’re getting our 15 percent of what Oregon’s attracting every day,” he said. “We’re just moving the deck chairs around.”