Can Fruit Valley bloom?

Fruit ValleyFruit Valley is Vancouver’s westernmost neighborhood, and its largest in terms of landmass. It is home to about 2,000 residents and 130 businesses. The area has easy access to the Port of Vancouver and several natural resources such as Vancouver Lake and the Ridgefield Wildlife Sanctuary.

Nonetheless, Fruit Valley has an image problem.

“It’s a very challenging area,” said Alisa Pyszka, Vancouver’s business development manager. “It’s bifurcated from the city by the railroad tracks.”

Bonnie Moore, director of business services for the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), was recently invited to coordinate a meeting in Fruit Valley to kick off a collaborative effort between several non-profits (including the Vancouver Housing Authority (VHA), the Fruit Valley Foundation and the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association), Vancouver city officials and area businesses to address some of Fruit Valley’s obstacles to growth.

The goal of the meeting, according to Eric LaBrant, president of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association, was to “see how we can make things better.”

Among the concerns LaBrant and Moore said surfaced at the meeting were:

• The area has insufficient public transportation to support a workforce that is predominantly commuting from outside the Fruit Valley area.

• The local workforcwe does not possess the skills companies need.

• Quick but healthy lunch options for employees are nonexistent.

• The unappealing appearance of railroad tracks, and graffiti on Fruit Valley Road, deter business expansion and recruitment efforts.

On the fringe

Laura Steele, director of Marketing at Cadet Manufacturing, said Cadet employs about 100 people and has been located in Fruit Valley for more than 30 years. However, said Steele, very few Cadet workers actually live in Fruit Valley.

“We’d love to hire from the community,” said Steele. “But transportation is an issue.”

Steele explained that because there’s no bus route nearby and many Fruit Valley residents tend not to have their own transportation, local residents find it difficult to work at companies such as Cadet.

Meanwhile, Garret Harper, associate vice president of NAI Norris, Beggs and Simpson, recently closed the sale of a 69,000-square-foot building to a wood products manufacturer in Fruit Valley. Because Fruit Valley is “on the fringe,” Harper said the area tends to attract international companies for whom location is not critical from a distribution standpoint. Smaller, more locally-based companies tend to choose more centrally located properties, he said.

Insufficient skilled workers

Although Cadet works with the Fruit Valley Center to find local workers, Steele said “skill sets are limited.” She also stated that there were few resources where companies could post job openings.

According to Moore, the high unemployability of residents in Fruit Valley is a major stumbling block to area businesses taking advantage of being in a federally designated HUBZone, which encourages development by giving those businesses priority when assigning government contracts. To qualify for HUBZone status, 30 percent of a business’ workforce must live in the zone.

Roy Johnson, executive director for the VHA, hopes to partner with Workforce Vancouver and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council to perform skill assessments and offer training to Fruit Valley residents who currently suffer from a 30-percent unemployment rate.

“We have a significant presence in Fruit Valley,” said Johnson. “So, we have a responsibility to the neighborhood.”

Peggy Sheehan, community development grant manager for the city of Vancouver, said her department had recently awarded $20,000 to the VHA to bolster efforts at bringing Fruit Valley businesses and residents together. Part of that money has been used to engage Amanda Lawrence from AmeriCorps as the Fruit Valley community engagement coordinator. Lawrence is currently in the process of creating a Fruit Valley business directory – a valuable resource moving forward.

No place to eat

Many of the businesses located in Fruit Valley are heavy industrial or manufacturing – environments that typically provide short meal breaks. For example, Steele said Cadet workers get 30 minutes for lunch. This makes eating out difficult for Fruit Valley workers.

“It’s hard to find good choices,” said Steele.

Right now, according Pyszka, there are “huge lines” at the local mini-mart during lunchtime.

Moore said the City is looking at modifying some zoning to allow food carts in the area. Currently, carts are required to move every three hours, and Washington’s Retail Food Code forbids mobile food units to be in any one place for more than 21 days.

Collaborating on a solution

The recent meeting was only a first step in developing a multi-faceted solution to the challenges Fruit Valley faces. Moore said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt will be visiting businesses to discuss their needs, and the CREDC hopes to find a “business association leader that could coordinate the voice of Fruit Valley businesses.”

In September 2010, the Vancouver City Council adopted the Fruit Valley Subarea Plan, which among other goals, hopes to grow businesses in the area and improve access and circulation. The county's economic development plan, recently prepared for the CREDC by TIP Strategies Inc., outlines several strategies and goals that could help the area transition to a sustainable, diverse economy, benefiting areas such as Fruit Valley.

“It’s not just a city issue, or a VHA issue, or a business issue,” said Pyszka. “We all need to work together.”