In Our View: Wonderful, Not so Weird

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We don’t know whether they are bringing some weirdness with them or whether they are leaving the weird behind, but Clark County is seeing an influx of residents from Oregon’s Multnomah County.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there was a net migration of more than 1,500 people in a recent five-year period to Clark County from Multnomah, the home of Portland and its mantra of “Keep Portland Weird.” And while we welcome migrants of all predilections, the numbers point out the need for developing an area that is diverse in employment, housing, and amenities.

“People end up moving within a metro area based on a lot of factors,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department in Vancouver. While that might seem obvious, it also is worth noting as we analyze the numbers showing that 4,036 people moved from Multnomah County to Clark County from 2009-13, while 2,506 migrated in the opposite direction. That places Oregon’s most populous county as the largest source of net migration to Clark County during that time frame.

For many people, there are myriad ways in which Clark County is more attractive than Multnomah County: Strong public schools, the lack of an income tax, and lower housing prices among them. Those definitely are not weird attributes, yet by themselves they are not enough to keep the moving vans heading north; one of the crucial aspects to developing a prosperous county is the ability to attract an educated and skilled workforce. In the past couple years, large companies such as PeaceHealth, Fisher Investments, and Banfield Pet Hospital have relocated their headquarters to Clark County, providing the kind of jobs that attract educated workers from all over the country. For comparison: While a new fast-food restaurant might also create some jobs, high-tech opportunities provide a ripple effect that generates employment in multiple sectors of the economy.

Continuing to develop jobs that are economic engines will require a holistic approach from leaders at both the county level and in cities throughout the region. Bailey noted that thriving downtown areas with trendy restaurants and a multitude of recreational activities attract startup businesses, which in turn lead to more vibrancy. While Vancouver’s core has effectively embraced that philosophy over the past 15 years (see Esther Short Park and the surrounding blocks), the burgeoning waterfront development could further enhance the process. “It’s OK to be a little hipster in Vancouver,” Bailey said.

This points to how Clark County is increasingly forging its own identity beyond that of a bedroom community to Portland. Vancouver’s downtown has been revitalized, and other cities throughout the county are developing their own personalities. While it is impossible for Clark County to sever its social or economic connection with the metropolis to the south — we’re separated by a river, after all, not a wall — it is essential for Southwest Washington to continue to create a unique culture. Some residents might wish for the region to remain unchanged, but population growth is destined to occur; it should be embraced and used to our advantage.

For many migrants, moving from Multnomah County to Clark County is a matter of finding a less-expensive way to stay in the metropolitan area. The mark of success, however, comes when those migrants grow to consider themselves Washingtonians, with the proximity of Portland being merely a fringe benefit. And there’s nothing weird about that.