Clark County's economy is growing, but is that growth just shrug-worthy, or is it cause for celebration? Two very different answers to that question emerged Thursday morning at The Columbian's 2014 Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
"My prediction? Vancouver and Clark County will flourish over the next decade," said Jon Roberts, principal at TIP Strategies, providing a voice of optimism.
The county's proximity to Portland will help it share in the growth of "knowledge economy" jobs, and Southwest Washington's investments in infrastructure will give the community competitive advantages, said Roberts, whose Austin, Texas-based company developed a strategic plan for the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
On the doubtful side: Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department. Retail sales, home construction and hiring are climbing, Bailey told a crowd of roughly 430, but all remain below pre-recession levels.
"Things are getting better; still, a lot of people are hurting out here," Bailey said, as he warned that national political corruption and income inequality could hold back the middle class from economic advancement.
For more than two decades, The Columbian has been inviting local and global experts to Vancouver to discuss Clark County's economic future. This year's event was organized around the theme "Turning Promise into Prosperity."
Rick Goode, CEO of Vancouver-based Columbia Machine, seemed to walk a middle road between his fellow keynote panelists as he described his own company's growth and the complex role it plays in the greater global economy.
"Our products make companies more efficient, and with that efficiency there are less jobs," Goode said. To make up for cuts to those relatively low-skill jobs, "We need to be creating more jobs in high-tech areas," he said.
Bailey and Roberts echoed Goode's support for science, technology and engineering-focused education, and all three said investment in infrastructure and regional collaboration are also key to the county's future growth prospects. But even as the panelists agreed broadly on the ingredients that feed economic growth, their different perspectives highlighted the challenges local leaders face.
Bailey said he believes the nation is moving in the wrong direction on global warming, and that failure to act now will have negative economic consequences in the future. He also said that the U.S. has still not done enough to punish people responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008, and to strengthen the banking system since then.
"We've got all these huge issues to deal with and we're not dealing with them," in large part because of political conflicts that are playing out both regionally and on the national stage, he said.
But Roberts said he sees hope coming from outside of the political system as technology upends entire industries and creates new ones.
"Disruptive technology can ripple through society and change business models," he said.
Today, entrepreneurs are developing cars that can pilot themselves, and Washington could become a leader in the coming era of driverless cars if the state would change its law to allow the vehicles, he said. Advances in the world of "big data" are reshaping how companies like Amazon.com deliver packages.
Continued support for high-tech businesses and education will position Clark County for strong economic growth, he suggested.
Thursday's keynote moderator, Betsy Henning, CEO of Vancouver-based AHA! communications firm, asked the panelists about the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a $110 million oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
While oil exports could be an economic boon to the Port of Vancouver, Henning noted that some people question whether the project would threaten downtown waterfront redevelopment plans.
Roberts responded by applauding what he described as the "re-shoring" of the energy industry across the country. He described improvements to energy efficiency, efforts to mine natural gas, and the Tesoro-Savage proposal as all part of a job-creating industry trend.
Goode echoed the positive aspects of increased U.S. oil production.
"Energy independence is very attractive," he said. "We're not relying on markets outside the country."
Bailey sidestepped the controversy over the Port of Vancouver's approval of a lease for the oil transfer terminal, which is now under review by the state Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council.
"I'm not going to weigh in on the port," Bailey said. He did criticize the spread of "fracking" to extract natural gas from the earth. "We have to change our thinking in terms of what is sustainable."
Following the main panel discussion, The Columbian hosted smaller, focused conversations aimed at digging deeper into the economic issues facing Clark County:
• "Exploring New Markets" delved into global trade opportunities and economic development.
• "Innovation and Imagination" examined the challenges and opportunities faced by the local high-tech sector.
• "Building Local Business" focused on opportunities for small and growing companies.
• "Voices of Our Youth" introduced local high school and college students, who discussed their own thoughts about the future.
Ryan Rutledge, an engineering student at Clark College who sat on the student panel, said that Bailey's arguments about sustainability had given him pause.
"I need to figure out what I think about that, I'm still undecided," he said, when asked how a company's environmental track record might affect his future career choices. "This breakfast today has given me a lot to think about."
Whether Clark County's economy grows at a snail's pace or rockets ahead, Rutledge and his fellow student panelists said they are optimistic about their own professional prospects in the decade ahead.
Clark College President Bob Knight, who moderated the student panel, asked what it would take to keep educated young people around after they graduate.
"It really depends on the steps Clark County and Washington state take towards growing industry and job opportunities," said Donnie Rhoads, a student at Columbia River High School. "If Clark County can bring more jobs here, why wouldn't I stay?"
Essays by many of the speakers and panelists are available on The Columbian's economic forecast page. Videos of the keynote and breakout sessions will be available later this week.