Panels explore different factions of local economy

By Aaron Corvin , Cami Joner and Gordon Oliver

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Prosperity for Clark County? Experts disagree

The Columbian's 2014 Economic Forecast Breakfast featured three panel discussions on a range of local business topics, and a fourth panel discussion featuring local high school and college students. Here are some highlights from those discussions.

Building local business

New opportunities and challenges to commerce in Clark County were discussed among four representatives of local businesses on a panel oriented toward companies that work and serve customers primarily in the local market area.

On the rosy side, the prospects are improving for residential and commercial contractors, as shown by an increase in permits to build single-family homes and apartments, along with some retail and office projects, said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. He said timing will play a crucial role in local home sales as builders propose to bring more single-family houses online, just as developers expect to build more multifamily rentals.

Buyers' tastes are changing, said Bomar, the former executive director of the Southwest Washington Contractors Association, a commercial contractors group.

Bomar said Clark County's diverse roster of housing projects reflects hesitancy among young potential buyers left gun shy by the recent meltdown. However, he expects a miniature bubble in multifamily if the apartment projects develop all at once. He expects new development will be challenged by state lawmakers' decision in 2013 to fund education with the state's Public Works Trust Fund, previously used to provide low-interest loans to local governments to finance public infrastructure projects.

"That has huge implications for providing water and sewer services," he said.

Bomar also expects development challenges as the county revisits the comprehensive growth plan adopted in 1994 to comply with the state's Growth Management Act. The plan needs to be updated by mid-2016.

Business owners should be looking ahead as the development community applies for project financing, said Lisa Dow, senior vice president at Columbia Bank. She advised business owners to test their proposals, weed out the character flaws and plan their collateral positions. She also recommended checking ahead for potential barriers, such as environmental regulations.

She does not expect to see hefty interest rate increases in 2014, but, "You will see some rising pressure on rates," Dow said. "The banks that are healthy have money to lend."

Growth along Clark County's 192nd Avenue corridor is poised to generate opportunities for retail and service businesses, said R. Tom Smith, a designated broker at Columbia Pacific Commercial Properties. He said development on the route, which roughly divides east Vancouver and the western-most border of Camas, will likely serve the nearby $47 million Camas campus of Fisher Investments, which manages $52 billion in assets.

The California-based financial firm is building a second, five-story office building that could double its current Camas employee base of 650 people.

"There's a need for employment to support those jobs," said Smith. "In commercial real estate, it pays to be in the right place at the right time."

As for residential real estate, it pays to appeal to the most popular demographic, said Carol Curtis, a broker for Windermere/Stellar Group who has worked in Clark County real estate for 30 years.

Curtis, who focuses on selling and marketing homes of all types, said she has noticed a definite trend in that the majority of her local clients are from the baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. She said the demographic is both powerful and vocal in expressing its housing preferences, such as single-story homes with low-maintenance yards.

Curtis credited the large generation of 50-somethings and 60-somethings and its collective wealth for strengthening and enhancing the local community. She reminded her audience that as the baby boomers become empty-nesters and retire, they are free to move their assets away from Clark County, which could have an adverse effect on the economy.

"We don't want to lose them," Curtis said.

'Exploring New Markets'

To secure footholds in new markets, Clark County must embrace smart state and regional business-recruitment and branding strategies, and recognize that plans to develop Vancouver's waterfront and to build an oil terminal at the city's port aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Those were among the points made by experts who spoke Thursday as part of the "Exploring New Markets" panel, aimed at businesses that aim to expand into markets outside Clark County.

Schuyler Hoss, Gov. Jay Inslee's regional representative to Southwest Washington, said Washington is well known globally for marquee companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, and for its agricultural exports. And its business opportunities in Asia, where growth has been "mind-boggling," he said, are immense.

The Washington brand "has tremendous cachet around the world," Hoss added, and the advantage for Clark County is that it can "play on the Washington brand."

Alisa Pyszka, vice president of recruitment and expansion at Greater Portland Inc., said the Portland-Vancouver region, in trying to attract companies to the area, won't find success in offering corporations tax breaks and other incentives. Unlike the Midwest or Southeast, she said, "we are not your incentive play."

"We are not your low-cost option," Pyszka added. "What we do have is an amazing ability to attract and retain talent."

Pyszka, the city of Vancouver's former economic development division manager, said Greater Portland Inc., a public-private partnership, is focusing on building up several economic development "clusters," including advanced manufacturing, software, and the athletic-outdoor and clean-tech industries.

Noting she'd just returned to Portland on Wednesday night after visiting San Francisco, Pyszka said the cost of doing business in the Bay Area, coupled with social unrest over a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, may be reaching a tipping point where some companies would be willing to relocate to the Portland-Vancouver area.

Port of Vancouver Executive Director Todd Coleman discussed the port's international connections and the wide array of cargo it handles. He also addressed the controversial proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a $110 million oil-by-rail terminal at the port. But the project has drawn strong public opposition over environmental and other concerns, including potential harm to a plan to conduct a mixed-use redevelopment of Vancouver's former industrial waterfront.

Coleman said he believes the oil-by-rail and waterfront projects can co-exist, boosting both the city's livability and supporting industrial development. The fact that the Tesoro-Savage proposal is undergoing a rigorous environmental review by the state Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council shows that public safety and other concerns are being taken seriously, he said.

'Innovation & Imagination'

The four panelists on the "Innovation & Imagination" panel struck a theme that Clark County needs to increase its attractiveness to talented workers who are looking for desirable places to live and work, or even create new companies. Because today's technology and the world economy reduce the need for companies to be located near their customers, it's important first to attract talent with the expectation that job growth will follow, said Ken Hood, a Vancouver resident who sold his Vancouver startup, ClearAccess, to technology giant Cisco in 2012.

"Top cities attract top talent," said Hood, who now works for Cisco in Lake Oswego, Ore. Vancouver needs to learn from Portland how to appeal to young professionals, he said. Portland can promote its easy bicycle commuting, restaurants, and parks, while Vancouver is more likely to be derided in the public mind as "Vantucky" or, in light of marijuana legalization, "Vansterdam," Hood said.

"How can we make Vancouver spiky?" Hood asked. Promoting the area's strong school system, improving Vancouver's downtown, and building a long riverfront trail would all help change the city's image and build its economy, he said.

Ken Levy, founder of 4-Tell, a company that helps online retailers up-sell and cross-sell products, said his small company is so loosely structured that it has little need for a central office. His only criteria for an office is that "it's on transit and close to good restaurants," said Levy, who lives in Stevenson. Levy said it's important for Southwest Washington to maintain a strong K-12 education system to attract skilled workers.

Leonard Phoenix, president of CID Bio-Science in Camas, said his company's global reach also diminishes the importance of place for company headquarters. With companies like his, said Felix, "it's one big world market. Our paycheck comes from the global economy." The company, which sells products used in plant research and food storage and transportation, is still tied to the local community where its employees live and raise their families, and is engaged in the community. He said one big challenge for the business sector is in finding a way to use technology to create new jobs to replace those that it eliminates, "to employ people in whatever comes next."

Bill Huseby, founder and president of Sigma Design in Vancouver, said his specialized product design and development company has enjoyed rapid growth, hiring 29 workers last year. While Huseby said he's always worked to grow his company, based in downtown Vancouver, he now is motivated by a personal desire to provide jobs and "be part of the solution."

But Huseby says it's getting tougher to find qualified engineers as the economy improves, and said workers skilled in the trades are in especially short supply. "We used to have trade schools, but that seems to have gone away," said Huseby, adding that his company ends up training people for its specialized production work.

'Voice of Youth'

Four high school and college students on the "Voices of Our Youth" panel shared a common theme that they're receiving solid educations that will make them well-prepared for the future. But the students voiced a fear that the high cost of advanced education could limit their choices of where to attend school or their way of life as adults saddled with high college loan payments.

The cost of schooling "kind of dictates almost everything we do," said Waverley He, a senior at Mountain View High School. "I could get into the best college, but I might not be able to pay." Loan payments could delay buying a home or starting a family, said He, who hopes to attend medical school.

Shavey Winters, a Washington State University Vancouver senior, said she's had to work at two jobs in order to pay for her education. But Winters said she has benefited immensely from her time at WSUV. Her education "has changed my view of the world, she said. "It has benefited me in positive ways and made me a better person."