Fourth quarter economic report: Housing uptick gives economy a boost

Clark County has long been dependent on recovering sector

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Highlights of the fourth quarter

OCTOBER

• Portions of Vancouver and Camas win a state Innovation Partnership Zone, or IPZ, opening doors for financing to boost digital technology industries.

• About 1,000 people show up at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds to argue for or against a proposed coal export terminal in Longview.n Three environmental groups sue the Port of Vancouver, alleging the port illegally held a closed meeting in its July approval of a lease for an oil-by-rail operation.

NOVEMBER

• A developer discloses plans for a $32 million urban apartment development on a mostly idle city block in Vancouver's Uptown Village.

• Fruit Valley residents raise fears about air pollution impacts of the Port of Vancouver's proposed oil-by-rail operation near their neighborhood.n The owner of St. Johns IGA store says he'll close the Rose Village neighborhood store as Wal-Mart and other competitors eat at market share.

DECEMBER

• Church & Dwight Co., which purchased Ridgefield vitamin-maker Northwest Natural Products in 2012, say it will continue Clark County operations under its new growth plan.

• Clark County informs local chambers of commerce that it is eliminating its modest financial contributions to cut its costs.

• More than 3,700 marijuana business applications statewide — 78 in Clark County — are filed before Christmas.

If you're in need of some good news in these uncertain times, look no further than Clark County's bustling housing market.

Indicators from last year's fourth quarter reflect a continuing upward trend in home sales, housing prices, and new construction of both single-family and apartment housing. Best of all, foreclosures have declined by more than half in the past year.

That's more than just an upbeat statistical measure of the housing market's health: it's a measure that fewer Clark County residents are having to face the deeply personal tragedy of losing a home.

The big drop in foreclosures likely reflects a number of positive trends. Among them: tighter practices by lenders, more realistic purchasing decisions by homebuyers and rising property values that allow struggling homeowners to avoid selling at a loss.

"When you get high enough equity, then the need for foreclosures becomes much less," said Mike Lamb, a Vancouver broker with Windermere Real Estate/Stellar Group.

Indeed, the uptick in all of the key housing benchmarks is good news for the overall health of Clark County's economy, which has long been dependent on the construction industry. Housing starts are up by 23 percent from a year ago, Home sales are up by more than 9 percent and the median price of homes for sale has risen by a healthy 5.7 percent. And the community continues to attract newcomers, with a 3.9 percent increase for the year in the number of swaps of out-of-state plates for Washington license plates in Clark County.

Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department, says the Clark County economy exceeded his expectations for 2013. The number of jobs grew by 2.7 percent, exceeding his forecast of 1.5 to 2 percent, Bailey said in an article in The Columbian's 2014 Economic Forecast special section, included in today's newspaper. Construction jobs, up by 9 percent in 2013, will continue to expand this year, Bailey predicts. But Bailey cautions that the recovery remains uneven, with many people left behind. And at Thursday's Economic Forecast Breakfast, Bailey emphasized that one-third of the new jobs emerging in Clark County pay less than $12 an hour, and that inflation-adjusted incomes for average-wage workers have not increased for 40 years.

For the housing and development industries, Lamb sees a bright short-term future. "There are an awful lot of positive signs," he added. "I think we're in for a good, solid year."

Oil, coal terminals

Other familiar issues dominated the fourth-quarter news

cycle, and none loomed larger than the ongoing controversy over two proposed energy-related facilities: an oil-transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver and a coal export terminal in Longview.

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build a $110 million oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The facility would be capable of handling up to 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day for conversion into transportation fuels. It would be the largest such operation in the Northwest.

The project has faced intense public opposition, but the debate moved out of the public hearings process and into the courtroom with a lawsuit filed in the year's fourth quarter. This month, Clark County Superior Court Judge David Gregerson dismissed a claim by environmental groups that the port violated the state Environmental Policy Act by approving the lease. In the same ruling, the judge said there's a "public benefit" in allowing Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center to pursue a separate complaint that the port violated the state Open Public Meetings Act by holding an illegal secret meeting to discuss the lease.

The proposed coal terminal in Longview also remained contentious. In October, about 1,000 people showed up at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds to argue for or against a proposed coal export terminal in Longview during a set of public hearings. Opponents appeared to far outnumber project supporters. Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview, owned by Ambre Energy and Arch Coal Inc., wants to export up to 44 million metric tons of coal annually to Asia.

Two other issues dominated the quarter, both to some degree involving retail sales. Wal-Mart's steady expansion in Clark County appeared to be one factor among several that contributed to the decision by owners of St. Johns IGA to close the longtime central Vancouver grocery store. Coming up soon in Battle Ground is a Wal Mart Supercenter, which is certain to reshape that community's retail landscape.

In a far different retail trade, would-be marijuana entrepreneurs jockeyed to land on the ground floor of a new -- or at least newly legal -- industry. As of Jan. 8, there were 6,619 applications submitted to grow, process and sell marijuana in the state of Washington, an activity legalized by voters in November 2012. Of those, 156 retail applicants were from Clark County, where the state has only approved 15 licensed retail pot stores. In Clark County, there were 36 applications to grow pot and 99 who applied to process it as of Jan. 9, according to the state Liquor Control Board.

Only recently have marijuana sales and economic development been uttered in the same breath. But marijuana sales have moved from the crime blotter to the business page, and time will tell whether it will unfold as a good news or bad news story as the economy continues to gain traction.