Blue skies. Thumbs up. High fives.
However you put it, it looks like Clark County is going to have a strong economy in 2016.
“I haven’t talked to too many people who don’t think Clark County is well-positioned for the future,” said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
Now, when you ask the person in charge of promoting the county’s economy something like, “How’s the economy?,” there’s little incentive for him to say “bad.”
But even regional economist Scott Bailey, known for his honest outlook even when it might be unpopular, sees no reason to be dour about the economic year ahead.
“The optimistic view is there is a sea change going on,” said Bailey, who works for the state’s Employment Security Department. “Higher-end professional jobs are moving here, giving us a seed for more entrepreneurial activity.”
So forget China slowing down the global economy this year, and look at the positive trends in the regional economy, he said
“Portland isn’t going anywhere, and neither are we,” Bailey said.
The development game
When Bomar took over the CREDC two years ago, the county was not as vibrant. He and his staff started to sew new seeds to attract businesses and support business expansion.
“Now, being here a few years, those ideas are starting to come to fruition,” said the president of the public/private economic development partnership. “I am seeing a lot more people interested in Clark County.”
The biggest recent “get” for the county that will come to fruition this year is Banfield Pet Hospital. The Portland-based national chain of veterinary services is moving its headquarters to east Vancouver, bringing more than 650 jobs across the river.
“Our associates are excited for the move to Vancouver this year, and we are looking forward to the growth opportunities a bigger headquarters will offer,” Tami Majer, a senior vice president for Banfield, said in a statement. She added that recent growth means even more jobs than initially anticipated are moving north.
Banfield Pet Hospital’s 206,000-square-foot building under construction at the Columbia Tech Center is set to open in June. That area of town will likely see its own continued development in restaurants, hotels and other services as more well-paying jobs open up.
“It’s starting to get its own gravity out there,” Bomar said of the tech center.
Very visible steps are being taken at the waterfront, too, with biotechnology company AbSci preparing to move to the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal One property along the Columbia River. The port welcomed the company with much fanfare, renaming the Red Lion as the Lower Columbia Life Sciences Technology Building and declaring that it foresees the development of a regional laboratory for the biotechnology industry.
“I would be surprised if that was the last we heard from Terminal One this year,” Bomar said. He echoed the sentiment for good news at the larger Columbia Waterfront development just downriver. It has two tenants lined up already — Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar, and M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which will relocate from downtown.
Bailey said the waterfront projects won’t stymie growth downtown so much as complement it.
“As soon as permits went out for the first apartment tower on the waterfront, downtown inquiries rose,” the economist said.
Vancouver’s trend of shuffling businesses around from one downtown building to another will likely continue — such as the contracting firm Killian Pacific and Pacific Continental Bank moving to the new Hudson Building, under construction by Killian Pacific — though the push to get new names in those downtown buildings will be paramount.
Bomar expects some announcements in that regard this year, but due to the nature of the economic development game, he says not a lot of details can come out until things are all but certain.
“The biggest heartache is timelines,” Bomar said, bemoaning the opportunities missed over building and permitting time that doesn’t line up with what businesses want or need. “Some clients don’t have the patience, but we’re seeing a little more.”
Bomar hinted of a composites manufacturer possibly relocating from the East Coast; logistics and distribution companies eyeing north county; a Port of Ridgefield building under construction that will be available for a new tenant; Sunlight Supply’s relocation to a building now under construction at the Port of Vancouver; and thousands of permits issued for apartments and single-family homes, which will support construction jobs and drive business growth in its own right.
“It’s exciting to see it all coming together,” he said.
There’s still plenty of work needed to support this optimism and keep the county growing successfully, including finding answers to the more abstract questions.
“One of the most important things to do is figuring out who you are. Some people think we’re an independent island, and that’s a mistake,” Bomar said. “Some people think we should become more like Portland, and that’s a mistake, too.”
He calls Vancouver, and the county, a “node” in the metro area, in part overshadowed by Portland but, he said, with the sun starting to shine in new directions.
Bomar will be staying busy this year with the usual recruiting of new businesses, attending to existing needs and long-term planning for growth. The CREDC could even restart its relationship with the county council, which stopped paying its $100,000-per-year commitment to the organization in 2013. That money had been used to help interested industries find a new home.
Not just new jobs but better jobs and wage growth are needed, Bailey added. In recent years,”median wages have kept up with inflation, and that’s it,” he said.
But the biggest cloud in the sky for the county’s growth is transportation, in particular the congested Columbia River crossings, Bomar said.
“We need to figure out a vision for transit,” he said. “Not just light rail. It affects our work and the types of businesses we attract.”
The congestion is troublesome, as Bailey estimated about 60,000 people work in Portland but live in Washington, and 12,000 people live in Portland and work in Clark County.
Helping people find work near where they live is a noble goal, but Bomar said it would be great just to see more eyes on Vancouver and Clark County.
“If I see more people from North Portland here at local brewpubs and restaurants, I’ll consider that a success.”