Implementing economic development: Infrastructure

Editor’s Note: Continuing our in-depth coverage of the recently adopted Clark County Economic Development Plan, this is the first installment of a recurring feature that focuses on the implementation of key economic components highlighted in the county-wide plan.

Port of Ridgefield landBrent Grening has his shovel full. The Port of Ridgefield executive director is not only overseeing the clean-up and development at the 40-acre Port of Ridgefield riverfront site and its redevelopment from its days as a wood treatment facility, he’s also leading a charge to develop Clark County infrastructure as part of the Clark County Economic Development Plan.

The plan, created by TIP Strategies Inc. of Austin Texas for the Columbia River Economic Development Council and county stakeholders, is a county-wide project that’s designed to bolster the region’s economy and employment outlook in the wake of The Great Recession.

The plan is divvied up into five overarching economic goals for the region: Improve information technology, higher education, attract international investment, promote business development and improve the county’s infrastructure.

“It all keys off of the land, the supply of land,” Grening said.

The plan, proposed in June, was recently adopted. Grening is trained on the infrastructure aspect. The key to attracting new and existing businesses to the region is to have shovel-ready industrial land, he said.

As Grening explains it, Clark County isn’t just competing with the rest of the Portland metropolitan area for business development – or on a broader scale, with cities on the West Coast. It’s a global consideration these days, with businesses actively picking and choosing locations that not only meet strategic business needs (close to transportation routes, customers, an employment base, etc.), but also municipalities that are positioned to quickly meet their building needs.

“Fully served industrial land is really a commodity,” Grening said. “It’s your stock and trade. Everybody’s got land. The difference between a field and business park is really the infrastructure you put in it.”

Brent GreningMoreover, sought-after talent often looks for lifestyle amenities such as education, housing, dining and recreation/entertainment options. Employers look to these as well, to attract and retain a quality workforce.

Land and permitting, Grening explained, are huge considerations. He offered the following example: There’s plenty of land in Nevada and Texas, but without the infrastructure to serve that land (roads, sewers, telecommunications, shipping routes) businesses are unlikely to plop down operations and hire workers. Additionally, the permitting process should be business-friendly, Grening says. Within 12 months, a business should be able to go from building site to open-for-business, with employed Clark County residents.

The Economic Development Plan also calls for fee waivers incentives to lure attractive business prospects.

“If we want to attract those jobs and we want our economy to bounce back, we have to compete [with shovel-ready building sites across the nation and world],” said Grening.

To that end, the CREDC is working to expand the number of shovel-ready locations in Clark County. The current stock of shovel-ready sites includes Centennial Industrial Park in Vancouver, 199th Street Industrial Area in Battle Ground, Ridgefield Industrial Park in Ridgefield, Discovery Pointe in Ridgefield, Gateway Industrial Park at the Port of Vancouver, Camas Meadows in Camas, Steigerwald Commerce Center in Washougal, Circle C Properties in La Center and 192/SR 14 Interchange, Vancouver and Camas.

To improve infrastructure, the plan includes the creation of a regional sewer program, ongoing road improvements – including the Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River – and freeway interchanges.

“Certain pieces of infrastructure are harder than others,” Grening said. “Freeway interchanges, those projects take typically 10, 15, even 20 years to finance.”

A catch, particularly during a down-turned economy, is the public’s reluctance to fund improvements to freeway and road projects, new sewage systems, etc., Grening said. However, he noted that things like utilities can typically be installed upon demand, when a new business begins the planning and building process.

With a new economy and a new, more cohesive approach to the region’s economy, Grening is looking for alternative funding options for infrastructure projects. Rather than cobbling together government grants as the sole source of project funding, he’s working to develop partnerships, consortiums and more, in order to move critical infrastructure projects ahead.

Back at the Port of Ridgefield, Grening said he’s had a number of business prospects, but nothing that solidified enough to announce.

“As the market turns, we expect to see client demand increase and we want to be ready,” Grening said. “The challenge is to get those expensive infrastructure items – sometimes those are long-term projects.”