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News / Clark County News

The Columbian’s top stories of 2009

Economy, Politics, and the bridge were big news of the past year

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: December 27, 2009, 12:00am
5 Photos
Rep.
Rep. Brian Baird at health care town hall. Photo Gallery
  1. Unemployment
  2. Bank of Clark County
  3. Mayor race
  4. I-5 Bridge
  5. Rep. Brian Baird
  6. School tragedies
  7. Weather extremes
  8. War deaths
  9. (tie) Skier assault
  10. Retail anchors close
  11. (tie) Budget cuts
  12. SEH/H-P land deal
  13. Local elections
  14. (tie) Filming
  15. “River Rat”
  16. Library advances
  17. (tie) H1N1 swine flu
  18. Riverfront project
  19. Stimulus money
  20. Housing market

The economy turned out to be a big factor in a lot of places this year, including The Columbian’s list of the Top 10 stories of 2009.

In newsroom balloting, two economic topics combined to take 22 of the 33 votes for the year’s No. 1 story in Clark County.

The county’s unemployment rate and resulting squeeze in personal finances was judged the year’s top story, followed by the stunning collapse of the Bank of Clark County. That story was relayed to a national radio audience via the public broadcasting program “This American Life.”

While economists have their own methods of charting these upticks and downturns, Vancouver Fire Capt. Duane Schuman can gauge it by coats. Firefighters at his station on Main Street distributed about 150 coats in its first charitable campaign a few years ago and hit 3,000 in 2008. They’ll top that this year, Schuman figures.

  1. Unemployment
  2. Bank of Clark County
  3. Mayor race
  4. I-5 Bridge
  5. Rep. Brian Baird
  6. School tragedies
  7. Weather extremes
  8. War deaths
  9. (tie) Skier assault
  10. Retail anchors close
  11. (tie) Budget cuts
  12. SEH/H-P land deal
  13. Local elections
  14. (tie) Filming
  15. "River Rat"
  16. Library advances
  17. (tie) H1N1 swine flu
  18. Riverfront project
  19. Stimulus money
  20. Housing market

The area around the fire station includes some low-income neighborhoods, but the call for coats doesn’t stop there. Teachers from classrooms in more affluent suburban neighborhoods are coming by to get coats for their students, Schuman said.

“Even in those communities, you don’t know which families are struggling,” he said.

Members of The Columbian’s news team selected their choice for the year’s top story from a ballot of 20 nominees. They also could check off up to nine other “Top 10” stories.

In our scoring, each vote for No. 1 was worth two points; each other story that was marked on a ballot was worth one point. The unemployment story was ranked No. 1 on 13 ballots (for 26 points) and mentioned on 14 other ballots, for a total of 40 points.

The sour economy also was ranked as Clark County’s No. 1 story a year ago.

This year’s top stories:

1. Unemployment

Even in a tough job market, the unemployment rate in Clark County stood out as the state’s worst.

A housing crash, cutbacks in manufacturing and a near-halt to discretionary consumer spending at local retail stores meant serious job cuts in nearly every Clark County employment sector.

By spring, employment reductions totaling nearly 6,000 had pushed the county’s jobless rate over 13 percent, highest in Washington. Employers seemed unwilling to take a chance on adding back workers as they headed into 2010.

Only health care seemed immune to the cuts and continued to add workers throughout the year. By year’s end employment rose 700 from the previous year.

2. Bank of Clark County

A collapse of the housing market pushed the Bank of Clark County to the brink by late 2008. In January, federal regulators stepped in to close the struggling local institution that had been a friend to developers, builders and business owners, too many of whom couldn’t meet their debt obligations.

Settling the bank’s accounts, paying back depositors and selling the bank’s loans to new owners continued to bring discomfort to the local financial market for the rest of the year.

3. Vancouver mayor

The most expensive mayor’s race in Vancouver history — and one of its most combative — saw city Councilman Tim Leavitt top 14-year incumbent Mayor Royce Pollard by nine percentage points.

They spent a combined $300,000; independent expenditures on behalf of both totaled about $100,000.

Tolls on a new Interstate 5 bridge were a big issue. Leavitt, who was endorsed by builders, Realtors and Clark County commissioners, said Pollard had not done enough to attract new jobs. A firefighters’ union that supported Pollard gained some political traction by revealing that Leavitt had not voted in most elections over the past decade.

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Leavitt’s city council seat will be filled by a council vote in January.

4. Interstate 5 bridge

A fragile bistate consensus on a new Columbia River Crossing approached the breaking point in 2009.

Leavitt was elected mayor in part on his promise to fight tolling to generate the local share of a project with a price tag estimated at between $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion. Portland Mayor Sam Adams responded by retracting his previous support for a 12-lane replacement for the existing three-lane twin spans.

Through it all, engineers continued to refine a project that will include a new bridge, five miles of interchange improvements on Interstate 5 and a light rail extension into Vancouver.

5. Rep. Brian Baird

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird closed out a tumultuous year — and stunned Southwest Washington’s political wonks — with his December announcement that he won’t seek a seventh term in 2010. His decision set off an instant scramble among state legislators and others who covet his 3rd Congressional District seat.

Baird, D-Vancouver, in August drew indignant crowds to a series of health care town halls. He first said he would not hold the meetings because of a “Brownshirt” mentality surrounding the health care debate. Later he drew the ire of Democratic leaders when he voted against the House’s Affordable Health Care for America Act, saying Congress lacked reliable estimates of how the legislation will affect premiums paid by people who already have insurance.

And he raised more than a few eyebrows with his proposal that the government merge Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan into one agency to serve low-income Americans, while scrapping the federal income tax and replacing it with a federal sales tax on goods and services.

Baird visited Pakistan and Afghanistan in November, giving a follow-up interview to the Al-Jazeera television network, and went to Gaza in February to view the damage from the Israeli military offensive against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. His previous travels to the Galapagos drew ire from those who question government spending.

6. School tragedies

Three school communities were rocked by tragedy.

Thirteen-year-old Alycia Nipp, a seventh-grader at Vancouver’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School, was stabbed to death on Feb. 21. Darrin E. Sanford was sentenced June 22 to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to aggravated murder.

Four recent Ridgefield High School graduates died on Aug. 10 an automobile accident. Aja Gerrity, 17; Amanda Williams, 18; Jason Cary Carter, 18; and Richard “Ritchie” Araiza, 18, were killed just west of Clatskanie, Ore. en route to a beach vacation. They had graduated a few weeks earlier from Ridgefield High School.

Gordon Patterson, who taught math and design technology at Hudson’s Bay High School, was killed Sept. 15 while bicycling home after school. A former Bay student, Antonio Cellestine, is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 1. He has been charged with felony hit-and-run driving.

7. Weather extremes

The hottest day ever recorded in Vancouver was just one of the weather headlines in 2008.

We started the year digging out from the heaviest Christmas snowpack on record — 3 feet in some areas of Clark County. Then, we shifted to stifling heat as Vancouver set back-to-back all-time records of 106 and 108 degrees on July 28-29.

Finally, we ended the year with a bone-chilling cold-air inversion — causing pipes to burst, energy demand to skyrocket and wood smoke to accumulate like Southern California smog.

8. War deaths

Four Vancouver-area families lost loved ones this year in Iraq and Afghanistan. All four soldiers were killed by improvised bombs.

Sgt. Edward W. Forrest Jr., 25, was killed April 10 by a truck bomb in Mosul, Iraq. Sgt. Earl D. Werner, 38, was killed Aug. 30 by a roadside bomb in Rashid, Iraq. Pfc. Ian Walz, 25, was killed Oct. 27 by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. Spc. Elijah Rao, 26, was killed Dec. 5 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

They are among at least 19 soldiers, Marines and civilian contractors with local ties who have been killed in the war on terror since 2003.

9. (tie) Skier attacked

A Washougal-area resident was attacked and left for dead in an assault case that drew national attention.

On Feb. 9, Kevin Tracey was preparing to go cross-country skiing along the upper Washougal River when two strangers walked up and demanded the keys to his sport utility vehicle. He was beaten unconscious, but was able to crawl back to a spot where three hikers found him.

After the case was featured on the Fox television series “America’s Most Wanted,” Michael Collins and his teenage son Teven were arrested in Mexico. They are being held in the Skamania County Jail and are scheduled to go to trial on Feb. 22 on charges of attempted murder and robbery.

9. Big stores close

Several high-profile retailers left Vancouver this year.

With layoffs mounting and job security eroding, Clark County consumers cut back on purchases at local retail stores. Faced with growing red ink, some closed, leaving empty and dark commercial spaces around the county.

Gone are Koplan’s Home Furnishings in downtown Vancouver, Joe’s outdoor retail store in Cascade Park and Studer’s in Vancouver. Kmart said it would close its only Clark County store after the first of the year.

The second 10

Tied for 11th were the $55 million purchase of Hewlett-Packard’s east Vancouver campus by the parent corporation of SEH America — the third-largest real estate deal in county history — and government budget-cutting as agencies try to reduce services to match shrinking revenues.

The Nov. 3 general election (all races but Leavitt-Pollard) ranked 13th. A three-way tie at No. 14 included some Hollywood excitement (shooting sessions for Harrison Ford’s film “Extraordinary Measures” and Timothy Hutton’s cable series “Leverage”); a robbery spree by the “River Rat” (Alexey Perez-Hernandez, a Pierce County resident, was arrested in connection with 18 holdups); and Fort Vancouver Regional Library District construction projects in downtown Vancouver, Battle Ground and Cascade Park.

Tied for 17th were two rounds of H1N1 swine flu; the ongoing riverfront development along the Columbia; and local impact of federal stimulus money. The crisis in the housing market — sales as well as construction — closed out the Top 20.

Julia Anderson, Kathie Durbin and Erik Robinson of The Columbian contributed to this report. Tell us your thoughts about these stories in the comments section below.

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Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter