2nd Quarter report: Business relocations, jobs numbers, home sales add to good news

But controversies nag at economy

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Second quarter highlights

April

• Banfield Pet Hospital says it will move corporate offices from Portland to Vancouver in 2015.

• Regulators lift added scrutiny of Riverview Community Bank due to bank's improved health.

• Riverboat American Empress, based in Vancouver, launches Columbia River cruises.

• State holds lottery to choose marijuana retail outlets, including 15 in Clark County.

MAY

• Papa Murphy's goes public with initial public stock offering set at $11 per share.

• Clark County's economy records 3.7 percent growth, with 5,100 more jobs than a year ago.

• Wal-Mart opens a Neighborhood Market in Vancouver and a Supercenter in Battle Ground.

• Telecom company Integra completes headquarters relocation from Portland to Vancouver.

JUNE

• Vancouver City Council votes 5-2 to oppose an oil transfer terminal at Port of Vancouver.

• Port of Vancouver calls off exclusive lease talks with BHP Billiton for potash export terminal.

• Marine research company Smith-Root breaks ground on new Vancouver headquarters.

• WaferTech's Taiwanese parent company TSMC ends talk of a new chip plant in Camas.

photoClick to enlarge
photoClick to enlarge

Clark County's economy showed renewed energy in the year's second quarter as the county welcomed one new corporate headquarters, attracted another for relocation next year, and saw other business moves and expansions.

But while the quarterly economic report is well-stocked with positive news, county residents dealt with difficult business controversies. Opposition to the proposed oil-transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver, where oil arriving by train from Midwest oil fields would be transferred to ships for transport to West Coast refineries, gathered steam with the Vancouver City Council's 5-2 vote opposing the project.

Meanwhile, spring months were spent preparing for the July arrival of legalized marijuana sales in state-licensed stores, including two so far in Vancouver.

Underlying those news events were strong upticks in employment and home sales, with much-welcomed drops in home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies. During the quarter, Clark County enjoyed stronger job growth than the state as a whole and the Portland metropolitan region, as the local economy gained in a belated game of catchup with its surroundings.

It's a far sight from one year ago, when county business leaders were bemoaning the demise of the numbingly debated Columbia River Crossing project. The daily traffic nightmare remains, but local businesses and community leaders have managed to turn their attention to other pressing issues. And the year's second quarter provided a much-needed boost in confidence.

Oil and marijuana

Vancouver found itself at the center of attention in the Portland region on the topic of marijuana legalization, a settled issue in Washington but one that likely will be fought in Oregon's November election. Former banker Brian Stroh spent the spring months developing his Orchards marijuana supply businesses, ​​​CannaMan Farms, in preparation for the July launch of legal marijuana sales. And while Clark County and the county's smaller cities held to moratoriums on marijuana retail outlets, Vancouver prepared to welcome Main Street Marijuana in Uptown Village and New Vansterdam in east Vancouver.

It hasn't been easy as the new business owners come up against federal laws that still classify the drug as illegal. But the stores have proven popular, with both selling out quickly of their scarce supply of legal product.

The ongoing community debate over the proposed oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver took a big turn when the city council opposed the project in a broad policy statement that opposed any proposal that would result in an increase of Bakken crude oil being hauled through Clark County. Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Bill Turlay voted no. The issue remained contentious as the state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council continued its review of the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a facility that could handle up to 380,000 barrels of oil per day.

Corporate relocations and expansions

The second quarter brought good news about the region's ability to attract new businesses. In April, Portland-based Banfield Pet Hospital announced that it would bring its corporate headquarters and 600 employees next year from Portland to the Columbia Tech Center, where it will build a 250,000-square-foot office complex on 20 acres.

While such large corporate relocations are rare, Banfield's announcement came just ahead of the move by Integra, a telecommunications provider, from Portland's Lloyd District to the former Hewlett-Packard campus in east Vancouver. About 450 employees work at the new 80,000-square-foot headquarters, some of whom had worked for Electric Lightwave, a Vancouver-based company inquired by Integra in 2006.

Add a third Portland company added to the relocation lineup. In April, Evergreen Plastic Container said it would move from North Portland to a Vancouver industrial site at Northeast 47th Avenue and 62nd Street. Husband-and-wife owners Helen Nguwen and Vincent Do said they would build a 50,000-square-foot building for their plastic bottling manufacturing business, which has 30 employees.

Also noteworthy is a move by video game technology provider GarageGames LLC to downtown Vancouver from Las Vegas. While the company brought just five of its 13 employees to Vancouver, economic development officials signaled the company's move as a significant catch it its pursuit of software developers and technology startups in the Vancouver-Camas Innovation Partnership Zone.

Smith-Root, a manufacturer of electro-fishing devices, launched 50 years ago, in June started building its new, 30,000-square-foot complex at 16605 N.E. 50th Ave. in Salmon Creek.

But it would have taken more than high-tech fishing equipment to pull in Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., parent of the WaferTech chip manufacturer in Camas, to build a new computer chip plant in Camas. City and economic development officials had dreamed of landing a next-generation chip plant at the WaferTech site, which has room and infrastructure to support expansion. The city was said to be competing with Oregon, upstate New York, and Taiwan for a plant that would produce chips for such products as Apple iPhones and iPads, possibly requiring a $4 billion investment and producing 1,000 jobs.

TSMC Chairman Morris Chang appeared to have killed that dream in late June when he told reporters in Taiwan that it makes more financial sense to build a new plant near existing plants in Taiwan. Another loss came with the Port of Vancouver's decision to end an exclusive lease option with BHP Billiton for a potash facility at the port, following four years of negotiations.

Looking to the future, Clark College selected a location for a north county campus that will allow the two-year college to better serve the Ridgefield, Battle Ground, La Center and Yacolt communities. The college hopes to offer classes within a decade at the 59-acre site near the Ridgefield Interstate 5 junction.

Pizza on Wall Street

Vancouver-based Papa Murphy's, which has maintained a low profile while building a dominant market share in take-and-bake pizzas, entered the world of Wall Street by going public with a stock sale in the Nasdaq exchange in May. Its stock opened at $11 per share and, after a brief initial surge, dropped below the opening price and remained there the rest of the quarter. The stock price dropped to as low as $8.32 per share.

Some financial analysts have been upbeat about the company's financial prospects, and its pizza consistently wins praise from customers and respected publications, including Consumer Reports. But it is in a bitter legal battle with more than 30 franchisee groups who accuse the company of failing to disclose accurate financial information and of engaging in "other deceptive acts." That battle is being fought in Clark County Superior Court.

Two companies producing consumer products changed hands during the quarter. Bemis Co. of Neenah, Wis., sold its Vancouver plant, along with three other paper packaging plants, to Hood Packaging Corp., based in Mississippi. Hood Packaging said it will continue operating the Vancouver plant, which employs about 150 people.

Home-grown company First Aid Only, with about 100 employees, sold to longtime competitor Acme United Corp. of Connecticut, for $13.8 million in cash. The new owners said they might expand employment in Vancouver by merging some production operations with existing plants.

On the retail front, Wal-Mart continued to make inroads in Clark County by opening two new stores in May. In Vancouver, its new Neighborhood Market opened at 2201 Grand Blvd. and the Battle Ground Supercenter opened at 1201 S.W. 13th Ave.

Economy gains strength

Certainly the best news for many households was the rising number of jobs during the second quarter. Unemployment continued its steady drop. But, in line with the national pattern, wage growth remained stagnant. In May, Clark County's economy was growing at 3.7 percent, with a 12-month increase of 5,100 jobs.

The county's continuing "hot streak," as described by Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department, included an increase of 1,400 jobs from April to May. Numbers for June will be released this week.

The county's annualized growth rate of 3.7 percent more than doubled that of the nation's (1.7 percent), easily topped those of Washington and Oregon (2.5 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively) and surpassed that of the Portland metro area (2.9 percent).

More jobs has brought more spending on homes, cars, and consumer products. Home sales were up by 10 percent from a year ago, home construction was on the rise, and there were big declines in both foreclosures and personal bankruptcies.

While local retail sales numbers for the quarter are not yet available, national figures indicate tepid growth in sales as consumers continue to exercise caution in a time when incomes are flat or in decline. And while slow growth in consumer spending may dampen the economy, it's a good sign that the lessons of the past recession have not yet been forgotten.