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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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Missing a chance to aid trade


Five in every 100 Washington businesses are based in Clark County. Six of every 100 state residents live here. So why is only one Clark County business represented on a major Asian trade mission of 104 people — a mission led by Gov. Chris Gregoire?

After all, some 7,900 Clark County jobs and $3.1 billion in the local economy are directly tied to imports, exports and international trade. Yet a list of the people traveling to China and Vietnam with the governor includes as many people from companies headquartered in Georgia and Ohio as from Clark County. Portland, with two delegates, has twice our representation.

I’m not looking to blame the governor. She issued a blanket invitation: Anyone willing to pay the $5,000 cost of attending was welcome to join the delegation, a spokeswoman said.

Considering that Gregoire’s last trade mission to Asia spurred $7 million in immediate new sales by Washington businesses and $23 million in subsequent years, it’s surprising that Scott Keeney, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based nLight, was the only Clark County representative who accepted the invitation.

Bart Phillips, CEO of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, said he opted to stay home because the focus of the trade mission did not align with his organization’s goals.

Gregoire’s current trip to China and Vietnam aims to boost the overseas sale of Washington-made products.

When Phillips accompanied the governor on her 2005 mission to China and Japan, by contrast, there were more opportunities to encourage Asian businesses to open or expand U.S. outposts, he said.

And though he’s staying home, Phillips hopes to piggyback on the trade mission by following up with businesses Gregoire’s delegation visits.

Fair enough. Phillips’ nonprofit’s mission is to create jobs. It aims to do that by helping local companies grow and getting other businesses to move here. This high-profile governor-led trip wasn’t the right fit for the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

But shouldn’t someone else have volunteered to represent Clark County? What about small businesses looking for new markets for their products? What about local companies that are already doing business in China or Vietnam, that could have bolstered their trade relationships?

Our location puts us at a political disadvantage. We’re far from the state’s economic hub (greater Seattle-Tacoma) and its government hub (Olympia). Portland, our powerful neighbor to the south, often misunderstands us, and its leaders don’t answer to our voters.

Now we’ve sent one representative when our business community’s size suggests that five out of the 104 delegates should have come from Clark County, and our population would even justify six.

If this entire trip is just a lot of political posturing, then those absentees were wise not to go. If Gregoire returns with tangible success stories out of China and Vietnam, however, we need to ask ourselves why Clark County decided to stay home.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.