Panels at forecast event focus on Clark County’s future, innovation

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2016 Economic Forecast

Find more information from the speakers at the annual event, along with videos of the keynote speakers and each of the breakout sessions at www.columbian.com/economicforecast. (Videos will be available Friday morning)

The biggest business event of the year took place Thursday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, when a capacity — and record — crowd gathered for the annual Economic Forecast Breakfast event. Following the keynote addresses, attendees chose from one of four different breakout sessions.

Here are highlights from those sessions:

Building on downtown

At the panel on downtown growth, developers Barry Cain and Elie Kassab, along with Port of Vancouver CEO Todd Coleman and DiscoverOrg owner Henry Schuck, shared a sense of optimism about the area’s future.

Though problems include a growing transient presence, parking issues and the need to attract more people to live downtown, the panelists ranked their hopes for the future an average of nine on a scale of one to 10. “Downtown Vancouver is the next big thing in the metro area,” said Cain, whose Gramor Development is betting heavily on that premise with the Vancouver Waterfront project.

Coleman plugged the port’s Terminal One project on the waterfront, which he said would complement growth downstream on Cain’s properties.

There was a full house for the talk, as interest in the downtown and waterfront moving forward — with two different visions offered by Coleman and Cain — attracted more than 100 attendees.

“I think this community is hungry to be down there on this waterfront,” moderator Kelly Love said.

Thriving in large markets

Businesses that have thrived in large markets have done so by being flexible and embracing disruptions in the business landscape or creating disruptions themselves, panelists said.

Seeing technology restructure seemingly everything but retail transactions, Ryan Jarvis, president and founder of Vancouver-based ShopBox, created a nimble and mobile-friendly point-of-service system so major retailers can sell their products at pop-up events and stadiums with minimal equipment. 

Hutch Johnson, president of Cadet Manufacturing Co., said the company has evolved in phases: from selling electric wall heaters to distributors to selling straight to big-box stores to embracing e-commerce.

“Think about how much less costly it is to take products off the production line and to your doorstep,” he said. “That’s the future for manufacturers.”

The early 1980s recession cut sales at kitchen cabinet manufacturer DeWils Industries Inc. almost by half. Seeing this, Tracy Wilson, the company’s CEO, realized the company had to get aggressive and seek out markets where the housing market was healthy. That led to an expansion into California, the East Coast and Japan.

Growing a business

The four female business owners and leaders in the “Growing a Business and Leading Change” breakout session emphasized the importance of being — and remaining — relevant as the world around them changes.

When Beacock Music opened its 20,000-square-foot building 10 years ago, the retail world was good, said co-owner Gayle Beacock. People drove to the East Vancouver store to take lessons and purchase musical instruments, she said.

Today, instruments are available online and bigger retail chains have stepped into the market, Beacock said. “You can’t be shy about what you have to offer,” Beacock said. “And then, you have to be darn good – better than good, extraordinary.”

For civil engineering firm MacKay Sposito, rapid business growth came with pains, said Lisa Schauer, a partner in the company. The firm saw 270 percent growth in the last six years and didn’t have all of the infrastructure in place to handle the growth, she said.

“Growing is good but you’re probably going to be uncomfortable,” she said.”Innovation does not occur if we’re not stretching ourselves.”

Building for Clark County’s future

One theme that emerged in a panel discussion on housing and development issues was a growing shortage of affordable housing either for rent or for sale in Clark County.

The inventory of houses for sale in Clark County in December was “the lowest it’s ever been,” said Lee Schiller, a broker for the Real Living real estate group in Vancouver. First-time buyers are being outbid by investors who offer cash for homes, she said.

In the rental market, rents have increased by nearly 10 percent in the past year and price pressures aren’t likely to ease even as the market absorbs the 1,300 units now under construction, said Carmen Villarma, president and CEO of The Management Group, which manages rental properties. Investors are purchasing and raising prices on rental housing even in Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, an area that historically has offered affordable rental housing, she said.

Andrew Jones, vice president of Columbia Tech Center developer PacTrust, noted that all three of the breakfast’s keynote speakers have their offices in the vast Tech Center. Originally envisioned primarily as a commercial development, Columbia Tech Center is evolving with housing and more non-chair restaurants “because that is what people want.” The area still has 70 undeveloped acres and PacTrust is in the process of acquiring another 52 acres, a supply of land that Jones predicted would meet demand for another decade.


Columbian writers Brooks Johnson, Dameon Pesanti, Marissa Harshman, and Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.