Clark County is showing signs of economic growth as it exits the hardest period since the Great Depression, Commissioner Tom Mielke said Thursday, but more could be done to make it the most business-friendly community in the state.
Comparing the last five years to being "battered by a storm," Mielke said there "are signs of recovery and brighter days" ahead. Still, he added, there's plenty of work that needs to be accomplished.
"Too many county residents commute to jobs in Oregon," Mielke said. "Too many homeowners are underwater on their mortgages and are worried about their future."
The statements were made Thursday afternoon at the 28th annual State of the County address at the Clark County Square Dance Center. And — as they remain the county's hot-button issues — the economy and transportation underscored the speeches, delivered by Mielke and fellow Commissioners David Madore and Steve Stuart.
Although the year ahead will pose opportunities, commissioners said, it will also likely be a period of transition.
For one, the county will be losing one commissioner by the end of the year. In January, Stuart announced he would not seek re-election. And just last week, he was named a finalist to become Ridgefield's next city manager.
Stuart, in his 10th and final address, pointed to the Discovery Corridor as a major building block in economic growth. The area runs along Interstate 5 from Salmon Creek into the northern part of the county.
"We are priming a powerful economic engine," he said.
Stuart also highlighted the Salmon Creek Interchange Project, a $133 million partnership between the county and the Washington State Department of Transportation.
He called the project an example of what can happen when the county partners with the state to complete a major infrastructure project.
He said the board of commissioners is committed to completing the corridor by building a bridge over Whipple Creek and creating another connection between Salmon Creek and the Clark County Fairgrounds.
Some of the most ambitious plans for the future came from the county's newest commissioner, Madore, who said it was time for Clark County to move beyond being a bedroom community to Portland.
"Is Clark County a great place for people to work? For some, yes," Madore said. "Clark County can do better. … We can make Clark County the most business-friendly community on the West Coast."
The specter of the Columbia River Crossing hung over Madore's statements, in particular when he vowed to prioritize the development of a toll-free bridge over the Columbia River near Northeast 192nd Avenue.
The bridge could be built in as few as five years, Madore said.
The vow came as a surprise to some, including Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, who said after the address that it was the first time he'd heard of the proposal.
"We haven't had that discussion in our community," he said.
Mielke, meanwhile, said there were signs the county was on the right track. That came despite his acknowledgement that 2013 had seen an exodus of county employees and two costly court settlements.
In the coming years, he said, the county would continue baseline budgeting and would not approve new positions without additional funding.
Even with the county losing a number of longtime department heads, Mielke said, the county has been able to fill the positions internally.
"If you were a basketball coach, these changes would indicate you have a deep bench," he said. "In our case, I think it indicates we have great employees."