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More growth on the horizon for Clark County

Area adding jobs, housing, businesses, but challenges still remain

By , Columbian staff writer
Published: January 21, 2018, 6:00am
5 Photos
The economy in Clark County continues to grow with new residents, more jobs and expanding commercial development. The Waterfront Vancouver, the biggest project in Clark County, expects to open its first phase this summer. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian
The economy in Clark County continues to grow with new residents, more jobs and expanding commercial development. The Waterfront Vancouver, the biggest project in Clark County, expects to open its first phase this summer. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

For many, living in Clark County today can be either good or frustrating: there are a lot of new jobs out there, people and developers are flocking to the area, and housing remains scarce.

But there is little doubt the local economy is expanding and will likely continue to do so through 2018, experts say.

“Everything seems to be improving at a moderate rate,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department. “So, you know, I don’t see anything on the horizon that says caution, look out. If we keep on this path, it bodes well.”

Preliminary state employment data shows that Clark County added 7,500 jobs last year, a 4.8 percent increase. That rate outpaces the average growth rates of the nation, the states of Washington and Oregon and the rest of the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area. Unemployment, while not a perfect statistic, dropped from 6.4 percent in January to 4.5 percent in November.

The three biggest growth sectors were construction; trade, transportation and utilities; and professional and business services. Meanwhile, the once-dominant manufacturing sector added only 400.

A closer look at growing sectors reveals how Clark County is changing, Bailey said. Jobs for people without college degrees are still available, but they aren’t growing as fast and neither are the wages.

“We’ve shifted a bit from midrange, a-bit-above-average jobs that are fairly accessible to more professional, higher-wage jobs,” he said.

Bailey added that many workers may see a bump in pay, but it will vary. Initiatives to increase the minimum wage in Washington will lift the lowest rung of hourly workers, while high employment could help many others. It’s higher-paying jobs that tend to have the best gains, though.

“We’ve been seeing for years that lower-wage jobs move up slower than higher-wage jobs, in terms of percent gain,” he said.

Construction workers, nurses and software developers are projected to be some of the most coveted jobs in the coming decade, according to the state Employment Security Department. However, most of the job openings will occur in retail and restaurants.

More bodies, buildings

Good news for those companies, and potentially tough news for homebuyers, is that Clark County is attracting more than 1,500 new residents per month, according to the state Department of Licensing.

Between 2014 and 2016, Clark County welcomed an average 18,365 people per year. That is 33 percent more than the average 13,773 per year between the years 2000 and 2013 — or 382 more people every month.

Still, the Columbia River Economic Development Council estimates that roughly 60,000 Clark County residents work in Oregon, and 40,000 work in Multnomah County.

While population growth is good for many businesses, it continues to squeeze the local housing market. The median sale price for a Clark County house rose last year by 9.3 percent, increasing from $298,600 in January to $326,500 in December.

Local experts say available homes are so few that it will take years of building to catch up to demand.

“I think it will take us a couple of years to climb out of this hole,” said Mike Lamb, a real estate broker at Windermere Stellar Vancouver who publishes a monthly report on the housing industry. “I don’t see anything on the horizon suggesting that’s going to change, unless the market just tanked so there’s no demand.”

Homes, including new and resales, spent an average 48 days on the market last year, according to the Regional Multiple Listing Service.

Quelling demand will mean increasing the supply, a boon for many local homebuilders. The National Association of Home Builders currently puts builder confidence at its highest levels since July 1999.

To scratch the surface in Clark County, one developer is proposing more than 400 homes in Vancouver’s Landover-Sharmel neighborhood. Separately, developer Urban NW Homes said its developments in Brush Prairie have a nine-month backlog.

Batches of new housing could get median housing price increases down to 5 percent, but the influx of new residents, rising costs of building and a shortage of land could keep prices high, according to the Building Industries Association of Clark County.

“In a growing economy and due to the desirable area that we live in, supply will not fully meet demand for housing because people will want to move here and we don’t necessarily have the buildable land supply to support significant population growth,” said Executive Director Avaly Scarpelli.

Commerce in county

Consumers seem to be feeling more confident in Clark County, prompting big swings in commercial development. Some bigger projects were also hit with setbacks.

The latest quarterly sales tax data from the state Department of Revenue shows spending is up in every city and in unincorporated Clark County. Vancouver alone topped $1 billion in taxable retail sales for the first time.

Competing for those dollars will be a slew of restaurants and retailers, packaged in big new ways.

Gramor Development, based in Tualatin, Ore., will open two restaurant buildings, an office tower and an apartment complex this summer to kick off The Waterfront Vancouver, a multiyear 21-block redevelopment along the Columbia River.

Upstream, the Port of Vancouver signed tenant No. 1 at its own waterfront site, Terminal 1. That 10-acre project includes a new hotel to break ground in late 2018, apartments, restaurants and a public market.

In the Lower Grand neighborhood, crews broke ground on a 300,000-square-foot plaza that will host offices, new stores and restaurants. Vancouver developer Killian Pacific projects the site will support 3,000 jobs that will earn an average salary of $69,000.

It’s not just big organizations flexing in the current economy. Downtown Vancouver accounting firm Johnson Bixby & Associates plans to knock down its single-story building for a five-story mixed-use development. Even the managers of Providence Academy, built in 1870, revealed plans recently to sell part of its property that will become a 140-unit apartment complex with 7,800 square feet of commercial space.

That kind of growth can build on itself. The Columbia River Economic Development Council, whose job it is to recruit and retain businesses in Clark County, said there is confidence that Vancouver is moving in the right direction economically.

“We don’t predict, specifically, but in terms of the businesses that we’re talking to, everybody seems pretty optimistic,” said President Mike Bomar.

But fortunes this year won’t all be good. Georgia-Pacific is expected to lay off nearly 300 papermakers at its Camas mill by summer. The city doesn’t rely on the mill as much as it used to, but losing that many jobs in an industry paying $77,588 on average is glaring, said Bailey.

“Let’s put it this way: if the CREDC announced a new employer with 300 jobs, averaging $80,000 a year, that’d be a headline wouldn’t it?” he said. “And those folks are going to have a hard time finding replacement jobs. What are they going to do now?”

Likewise, the Port of Vancouver is still pursuing its first tenant for Terminal 5. Don Orange’s election to the board of commissioners effectively doomed a massive crude-by-rail project. While many are happy to hear that, the port will keep searching for an anchor for the 100-acre parcel it has spent more than $275 million turning into prized land for an import/export operation.

The future of the Interstate 5 Bridge likely won’t be solved in 2018, but Bomar said it does hang over a lot of economic discussions.

“The ability to draw from a 2-million-person workforce versus half a million, there is a difference in the types of companies you can draw,” he said. “You’re still seeing growth, but it is affecting the type of businesses that want to move here.”

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