One of America’s wealthiest men brought a dry sense of humor and a deep appreciation for Clark County’s rural and suburban communities to The Columbian’s 2015 Economist Forecast Breakfast on Thursday.
“America has a big divide between urbanness and non-urbanness, and non-urbanness is winning,” Ken Fisher, CEO of Fisher Investments and a resident of Camas, told a crowd of about 530 people who gathered before sunrise to attend the 31st annual forecast gathering.
Fisher, the keynote speaker, began his move into Clark County in 2006 to open a small satellite office in east Vancouver. Since then, Fisher has expanded to more than 900 employees on a campus in Camas with two office buildings. The company’s headquarters remains in Woodside, Calif., and Fisher Investments also has offices in London and in Frankfurt, Germany. Fisher is No. 236 on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, with a net worth of $2.7 billion.
He said Clark County residents should be proud of the community’s low crime rate, affordable housing and quality of life. He advocated for embracing the non-urban nature of Southwest Washington, and urged local leaders not to tie themselves to Portland as they develop the community.
Portland may be trendy, but Southwest Washington is less concerned with taste and style, and more concerned with the “real” world, he said.
“I’ve got a lot of class and all of it’s low. I got a lot of taste and all of it’s bad. I see all these people who suffer from inferiority complexes who want to go and be a foodie in Portland. I will do that when I’m dragged across the river,” Fisher said, in a characteristically dry dig at urban America.
“Let Portland be Portland, you guys be you,” he continued, winning applause from the crowd.
As Fisher touted the benefits of non-urban living, he also praised The Columbian for its role in informing the community about local issues.
“Urban media has a very difficult time communicating reality to its readers,” he said. But local community papers “cannot produce a lot of nonsense about your community, or you’re going to know it and tell your neighbors.”
After his speech, Fisher took questions from the audience — several times answering evasively. Asked to give investment advice and to speculate about the price of oil, he said he did not have special knowledge of the future, although he said he did not expect oil to return to price levels of recent years.
Asked about his company’s philanthropic approach, he responded, “I am not a sociologist.” Later, Fisher noted that he had donated $600,000 to the University of Washington to fund tree science research on the Olympic Peninsula.
Fisher said that forecasts about stock prices end up being incorrect, because the market has already adjusted for business trends before they happen. The market adjusts to unpredictable events on the extremes that cannot be foreseen, he said.
“My bias is that this is a positive year,” Fisher said. “But if I’m wrong, it’s likely negative.”
Fisher left most of the forecasting to Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Washington state Employment Security Department, and to the community leaders who spoke in detail about business and economic opportunities during panel discussions that followed Fisher’s presentation.
Bailey, who has delivered pessimistic forecasts repeatedly for most of the past 10 years, changed his tune during remarks delivered ahead of Fisher’s speech.
“We’ve had a fabulous year,” Bailey said, noting that with 4.5 percent job growth, Clark County employment has been rising more rapidly than the rest of the country, and that local growth has been widespread across multiple economic sectors.
“We were in a huge hole during the recession. We’re getting out of that hole,” he said.
After his presentation, Bailey joked that he should have held back. “Last time I was this optimistic, local layoffs started right after the forecast.”
But in the breakout sessions that followed Fisher’s speech, a number of local leaders echoed Bailey’s mood.
At the panel discussion on housing and commercial development, Kelly Helmes, vice president at New Tradition Homes, said that 2014 was the best year for Clark County housing construction since 2007. He predicted more growth in the year ahead.
“A lot of folks did great work 10 years ago that is now starting to come to fruition,” said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, a panelist in a discussion of economic development opportunities.
Bomar cited revitalization efforts in Camas and Washougal, as well as the downtown Vancouver waterfront project, as examples of long-term efforts that are starting to bear fruit.But he also cautioned that Clark County will have to promote more than just quality of life if it wants to recruit new employers.
“We have a value proposition in Vancouver that is really worth shouting about,” said Teresa Brum, economic development division manager for the Vancouver city government, who participated in the same panel. “We don’t have good education, we have great education. And it’s a good regulatory environment for businesses.”
Still, business leaders did highlight areas for improvement.
On the “Prospects for Large Employers” panel, John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab, bemoaned the state of the Interstate 5 Bridge, and said that without a better transportation alternative some businesses will be hesitant to locate in Vancouver.
Paul Dennis, president and CEO of the Camas Washougal Economic Development Association, said that Washington’s environmental regulations can be confusing and difficult to navigate, leading to stalled projects in some cases.
Fisher himself said that high-level executives at large companies like Intel want nearby small airports to fly in and out of when they are not traveling through major commercial air travel hubs, and he lobbied for a new airport in northern Clark County.
His only other complaint centered around branding, which has created a challenge when recruiting employees from elsewhere in the country.
“The biggest problem in getting people to come here — we say, ‘Camas,’ they say, ‘huh?’ ” he said. “We say, ‘Vancouver,’ they say, ‘Oh, you mean Canada.’ We say, ‘Near Portland,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you mean purple hair.’ “
But once a new recruit joins Fisher Investments’ Camas office, Fisher said, most new hires are won over by the community and want to stick around. The turnover rate in Camas is far lower than at the company’s headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley, he said.