A lack of land and the growing pains of a population boom are among the biggest challenges to economic growth in North Clark County.
On Sept. 14, the second day of a two-day meeting hosted at Battle Ground City Hall, the Washington State Transportation Commission heard from local officials about the economic state of North Clark County and how it relates to transportation.
Much of the day’s discussion focused on the state of the region’s economy.
Washington State Employment Security Department Regional Economist Scott Bailey gave a by-the-numbers view of the situation. He noted Clark County is the second-densest county in the state behind King County in terms of population.
Jobs in the north part of the county have recovered well from the pandemic, especially in Ridgefield, but not so much in La Center, Bailey said. Of North Clark County cities, La Center had the highest annual median household income with close to $100,000. Ridgefield was a few thousand less, while Battle Ground was closer to $80,000. Yacolt was the lowest at about $70,000.
Bailey noted in Battle Ground and La Center, construction jobs make up the largest percentage of industry types, while in Ridgefield, manufacturing featured the most jobs. Agriculture, to which many communities trace their roots, was not nearly as significant.
“Many years ago, the (Washington State University Extension) office here quipped that the number one crop in farming is real estate, that the demand for housing was so much stronger,” Bailey said.
The agriculture still present consists mostly of smaller family farms and wineries, Bailey said.
Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) Executive Director Jennifer Baker said 80% of projects in CREDC’s pipeline require real estate that allows for manufacturing.
“For north county, I think that’s particularly profound because as we look at the employment lands profile, there are diminishing industrial land sites that are really able to host the types of companies that are currently seeking to grow here,” Baker said.
That reality requires either a hard look at the county’s comprehensive planning or retooling what types of companies CREDC tries to bring in, she said.
Throughout the pandemic, CREDC maintained a healthy business development pipeline, Baker said. In her four-year tenure with CREDC the availability of viable employment lands have rapidly shrunk. She said much of that viable land was acquired for warehousing, distribution centers and mini-storage, which from the council’s standpoint is not the type of development they seek to build.
In 2021, CREDC received 13 relocation inquiries, Baker said, 11 of which the council could not respond to due to the type of land being requested. The average request was 73 acres, with the average job creation impact being 221 jobs or more.
Chief among the North Clark County focuses for economic development is the Discovery Corridor, a term coined by former Port of Ridgefield CEO Brent Grening, which describes the land based around four interchanges with Interstate 5.
Current port CEO Randy Mueller noted the corridor’s significance to development, as well as the rapid growth the city of Ridgefield and surrounding areas have experienced.
“It’s not all roses being the fastest growing city in the state for the last 10 years. It sounds great, and many parts of it are, but there are struggles we have just keeping up with the infrastructure, our roads crumbling underneath us faster than we can rebuild them and expand them,” Mueller said.
Mueller said those who live in Ridgefield generally work outside of the city, while many of the people who work in the city live somewhere else. Working from home has also changed the dynamic of commutes, as some residents either have a few days a week where they don’t travel to the office or don’t head there at all, Mueller said.
That also affects the port’s priorities, as focusing on office space makes less sense than it did prior to the pandemic.
“We’re still struggling on how to navigate that,” Mueller said.
He brought up the port’s Wisdom Ridge development which includes space for the Ridgefield School District and a workforce training organization with a heavy focus on robotics.
“In that building we have kids learning to build robots and adults learning how to build robots,” Mueller said.
Mueller said ports in Southwest Washington are united in the opinion that freight transportation has not been adequately represented in the discussion about the replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.
“We all love our packages showing up in a cardboard box on our doorstep, but there is a whole series of steps that have to happen for that to take place,” Mueller said.
The region’s growth will only exacerbate transportation issues. Clark County was the second-fastest-growing county in the state between 2010 and 2020 with 18.3% growth, Washington State Department of Transportation Southwest Washington Regional Administrator Carley Francis said. It outpaced growth of all counties in the Portland-Vancouver metro area between 2018 and 2020, growing nearly as much as the three Oregon counties in the area combined. More than a fifth of population growth in the metro area from now to 2040 is expected in Clark County.
Looking at specific state-run systems in North Clark County, Scott Langer, the Washington State Department of Transportation Southwest Washington assistant regional administrator, pointed to the state Route 503 corridor that runs north to and through Battle Ground. The prior day, city officials noted the limited access nature of the highway made connections to support development difficult.
Langer said the reason state Route 503 is limited access is because it was planned to be a freeway. From his perspective, using signalized intersections that are spaced out a mile apart won’t work for traffic flow.
Langer said Battle Ground’s transportation system plan has been a big help for the state.
“For us as the DOT, a community having a plan for what they want to be and how they see their transportation system laid out, that’s huge for us,” Langer said.
Given that plan, Langer said there needs to be fundamental changes to how Washington State Department of Transportation looks at the route.
“You cannot have a freeway cross-section and just drop a bunch of signals in there,” Langer said.
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