WASHOUGAL — A free lunch is up for grabs between a couple of Port of Camas-Washougal staffers.
Executive Director David Ripp bet that the port’s boxy new industrial-warehouse building would be half leased before construction wrapped up. Facilities Manager Jeramy Wilcox bet it would be filled.
With three months to go before the ribbon is cut, Ripp isn’t feeling too confident. Two tenants have already leased half the space and a third business is close to signing a lease, he said.
“I thought it was an easy bet,” Ripp said in his offices, laughing. “But it’s a good bet to lose. I don’t mind bets like that.”
The building itself was a safe bet, judging by recent history. The Port of Camas-Washougal’s previous foray into speculative construction was half the size of the new building, but the building was fully leased by the time it opened.
Ripp may have underestimated the strength of the Camas-Washougal economy. Many east county businesses are thriving and adding more employees.
Nowhere in Washougal is that clearer than the Steigerwald Commerce Center. What was once a cow pasture on the eastern fringes of a city of 15,000 is now a business park sprinting to serve its expanding tenants.
At nearly 50,000 square feet, Building 18 is the biggest spec building the port has built in recent years. The Port of Camas-Washougal hasn’t marketed it very much, but Ripp said the economy is doing a lot of the work for them.
“I don’t want to jinx us, but it’s a hotbed right now,” he said.
Data from the state Employment Security Department backs him up. Washougal’s employment base has grown from 2,524 to 3,396 jobs since 2010 — nearly 35 percent.
That sunny economic outlook is driving both of Building 18’s announced tenants. Both are trading up for more space.
Panther RV Products is feeding on increased travel and recreational spending, said co-founder Ethan Sweet. The company sells parts and amenities for recreational vehicles. It will grow to include RV repair, and will increase employment from 10 people to at least 15.
“We believe we can sustain the growth with just five more employees, but if we have to get 20 employees, that’s what we’re going to do,” Sweet said.
Coffee’s popularity is tipping the scales for iFill Systems. The company makes equipment used by roasters to package coffee into single-serve packets — called pods — and expects to grow from 13 employees today to 50 by the end of 2019. CEO Edward Cai said they plan to stay at Steigerwald for as long as they can.
“It’s kind of far away, but the place is going to grow,” he said. “We have a lot of land here. If we need more buildings” they can find them, he added.
Steigerwald was carefully planned to target local niche businesses.
Much of the 120-acre site is zoned for heavy industrial use. That would allow it to welcome, say, an advanced manufacturer offering dozens of family-wage jobs.
Clark County has many places zoned to compete for these firms, but most are aimed at larger tenants. The Port of Vancouver’s latest industrial site, for example, hopes to land a 50,000-square-foot tenant by spring. Lots at Steigerwald are considerably smaller and their new building is designed for tenants who want from 2,500 to 25,000 square feet.
“They did a good job on the Steigerwald site plan on having smaller lots that they could deliver there,” said Garret Harper, a commercial real estate broker with The Fuller Group.
The plan, according to Ripp, keeps the Port of Camas-Washougal from living and dying on the events of a single business.
“I would rather have 10 little businesses than one big one,” he said. “If one leaves, I still have nine.”
Businesses that aren’t technically heavy industrial are also finding success at Steigerwald. Brewery and taproom 54?40′ said it will grow to 15 full-time employees at its location.
“Not only do we get to brew and have this be our passion, we also get to add jobs for folks, which is cool,” said owner and Washougal native Bolt Minister.
Willing to sell
Selling property has also been a card the port willingly plays. While the Port of Vancouver has sold land only twice — to Sunlight Supply and Farwest Steel — the Port of Camas-Washougal has done so a handful of times in just the last six years.
Foods distributor Foods in Season, custom manufacturer Columbia Forge and manufacturer Northwest Adhesives are all among companies that have bought their own property. Chuck Asbury, owner of Northwest Adhesives, said the process has been easier than previous experiences, and he expects to grow again at Steigerwald.
“We can’t keep up,” he said. “Five years from now we’ll probably look to expand again.”
While Building 18 will open in May, there is a lot more development coming at Steigerwald.
Columbia Forge and Next Machine Solutions, two Washougal companies owned by the same person, are slated to build two 10,000-square-foot facilities this year. They are expected to bring 75 jobs, Ripp said.
Stainless Cable and Railing plans to build a 22,000-square-foot facility as well. The manufacturer has grown from one employee to 28 since it was founded in 2008.
“That park has really started to kick off,” said Paul Dennis, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association. “As fast as the port can build, they’re booking.”
Ripp may have to buy lunch for Wilcox soon, but he isn’t too concerned with that. He said the port is already looking for the next slate of projects: more roads to circulate traffic and, of course, more construction.
“It’s a good bet to lose,” said Ripp. “But, again, here we are: we’re full. No more inventory. We’ve got to start on Building 19 then.”