Strictly Business: High-tech vibe can thrive here

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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photoGordon Oliver

On an early morning hike nine days ago, we climbed steep hills south of San Francisco to enjoy stunning views both of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Then we headed to the local Starbucks, in San Bruno, to round out our morning.

As we approached the forgettable strip mall, our host pointed to an office building next door — the headquarters of YouTube. The world-famous company, owned by Google, was barely noticeable in the suburban landscape of job-rich Silicon Valley.

It’s hard to grasp the creative energy of this region where businesses can explode from garage startup to multibillion-dollar acquisition target almost overnight. Top-tier businesses can fade into the suburban landscape or sprawl in well-known enclaves like the Googleplex, a 3.5-million-square-foot office complex that houses one of the world’s most successful companies.

Silicon Valley gained a stunning 47,000 new jobs last year, at a growth rate double the statewide average. The wealth of the area, encompassing Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, is staggering. Forty-five percent of households earned more than $100,000 annually in 2012, up by 6 percent from 2006, according to the Silicon Valley Index. Households earning less than $35,000 a year held almost steady at about 20 percent during those same years. Middle-income households declined from 40 percent to 35 percent of the total.

Stark comparison

By comparison, just 22 percent of Clark County households earn more than $100,000 a year. Almost half fall in the middle-income range, and 30 percent earn less than $35,000. Yes, you can live on far less here. Still, we have more poor, fewer in the middle class and far fewer rich families.

The trappings of Silicon Valley’s wealth show in the area’s fine shops and fine restaurants, its luxury cars and unimaginably expensive homes. But some who can’t afford those pleasures move to other parts of a region that’s becoming uncomfortably aware of its widening income disparities, or leave the region entirely.

We’ve been able to attract a few exiles from Silicon Valley, most notably Fisher Investments. Ken Fisher keeps his company headquarters in California, yet he’s brought hundreds of jobs to Clark County, where his workers can more easily purchase homes, send their children to quality schools, and enjoy our outdoor amenities.

Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, sees an opportunity for Clark County to compete for high-level workers looking for a healthy balance between personal and professional pursuits. But those workers are first drawn to Portland, he says, so Clark County sells itself as a part of the regional vibe of foodie culture, creativity, and outdoor recreation. That’s not always a popular thought in a community where we tend to highlight our differences with Portland’s quirkier features rather than our common economic destinies.

While few people wish for the over-the-top wealth of Silicon Valley and the problems it creates, we wouldn’t mind if a few of that area’s companies and high-energy workers headed our way.

Editor's note: This story was changed to correct the location of YouTube's headquarters.