It was time for a different kind of forecast Thursday morning, one that many hoped would treat the roads better.
The Columbian’s Economic Forecast Breakfast was held at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Some 485 members of the business community attended to hear economists and a panel of local executives answer questions about what they felt Clark County needed to ensure growth for years to come.
“The key things to think about: if we’re going to build this community here in Clark County, we need not only talent, we need the businesses (in order) to provide the students jobs after they graduate from school, and we also need a community for them to live and work and play in,” said Mei Wu, managing director at SmartRG Inc., a company specializing in software for telecommunications firms.
So went the hour-long panel Thursday morning at the Hilton, hosted by The Columbian. The event was officially titled Vision 2020.
Wu took the dais alongside executives Vincent Bradley of Banfield Pet Hospital and Stephen Nigro of HP Inc. The panel was led by Columbia River Economic Development Council President Mike Bomar, who lobbed questions about how the region could attract businesses and stay competitive.
The short answer: new and reliable infrastructure, livability and high-skilled workers.
“With those three things behind us, we can invest in our students, work with better students and help build infrastructure,” Wu said. “We’ll be on our way to building this ecosystem with many, many talented leaders in the future, many more businesses and many more opportunities and keep it all in Clark County.”
The biggest talking point, however, was the local workforce. Panelists repeatedly said they felt the region would remain strong as long as it continued to attract young talent, but it would have to contend with the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.
“Students and young people want to live in the city,” Nigro said. “I think that’s a challenge and an opportunity: how do you take advantage of this proximity to Portland but also leverage the assets and capability you have here” by growing Clark County’s workforce training.
It all echoed similar sentiments brought up last month by business organizations. Speaking ahead of the new state legislative session, the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County and the CREDC said they hoped to see lawmakers invest in jobs training programs at Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver, among other things.
Entwined in the workforce issue are infrastructure and transportation. The phrase “traffic sucks” was said three different times, with some variation, by people contending that easier movement across the Columbia River would benefit both the Portland and Vancouver economies.
“Traffic sucks as it relates to commuting,” said Bradley, adding that 60 percent of Banfield’s workers commute from Oregon. “From my perspective, it’s not about going from Vancouver to Portland, we’re actually talking about bringing people to Vancouver.”
Replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge has been a contentious issue for years now. Oregon and Washington came close to building a new bridge, the Columbia River Crossing, before disagreements over funding scrapped the project in 2014. Gov. Jay Inslee recently put the bridge on a wish list of projects sent to the Trump administration that would benefit from a federal infrastructure package.
To the gasps of some audience members, Wu said the dearth of Clark County-based high-tech companies in the 1990s led her to commute to Beaverton, Ore., for 15 years.
“It was a terrible, terrible commute. And it’s gotten worse over time,” she said. Wu eventually joined Vancouver-based ClearAccess, a maker of tools for telecommunications and internet providers, which spawned SmartRG.
There are massive developments already underway. Speakers lauded the multi-billion-dollar development at the Vancouver waterfront. Wu also commended the dark fiber project at the Port of Camas, that would provide hyperspeed internet connectivity for high-tech companies near the Vancouver-Camas border.
“That’s going to connect Vancouver to the rest of the world, and that will help us build infrastructure,” she said, adding that research conducted at Washington State University Vancouver may also benefit.
Economist John Mitchell, the keynote speaker, spent much of his speech comparing today’s economy to that of the 1980s. Then, like now, the employment rate was high and the inflation rate was low.
But the future is uncertain, he said, especially around tax and trade policies that will be put forth by the incoming Trump administration.
“Do we even really know what policies are going to be? When it’s going to be put in place? Nobody knows,” he said.
The economies of the United States, Oregon, Washington and Clark County would likely grow, he said; and the high employment would cause inflation to start rising. However, he wondered whether 2017 would show slower growth than 2016.
Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department, said there was no reason to think Washington and Oregon wouldn’t continue to grow rapidly. Though counties in both states still struggle, he said the strength of their urban areas showed no signs of slowing down.
“I think the Northwest, which looks pretty good compared with the rest of the country, could be even better than what’s predicted,” he said. “I think we’re going to have another good year here.”
The event was closed out by Carolyn Long, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver.