Examining economic development: La Center

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a recurring feature examining how individual communities & jurisdictions in Clark County are poised to adopt and take advantage of the recently adopted county-wide Economic Development Plan.

file photoBy the time the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREC) released its Clark County Economic Development Plan last September, the City of La Center had already been working for three years on very similar goals.

According to City Planner Dale Miller, La Center developed its own study to identify prospective businesses and industrial sectors that would be most likely to locate in or relocate to the city.

“We used the same basic economic development strategies, SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities and Threats) analysis and so forth,” said Miller. “We’ve been at this for a while.”

Miller said the city has been working diligently to focus on what officials believe to be the key to future growth and development: economic diversification.

“The main reason why La Center is pursuing this [economic development] is to diversify the local economy,” he explained. “We’re overly reliant on non-tribal card rooms. We’d like to diversify so we don’t overly rely on any one sector, and lack of industrial land has been a stumbling block.”

Additionally, Miller said, the city has not yet managed to attract its own broad base of high-wage employers within La Center’s limits.

Meanwhile, La Center’s key strength, according to the city’s own development plan, is its quality of life. Proximity to the Portland-area and maintaining a pastoral, small town feel and close-knit community is another benefit.

Interestingly, the community has grown dramatically over the last 15 years, with a population that has more than doubled since 1990. However, despite this growth, La Center has not experienced attendant rises in traffic problems, housing costs and environmental damage. Planners attribute this success to the city’s stringent growth regulations.

In comparing La Center’s development plan with the CREDC’s plan, two goals stand out in terms of the direction La Center officials said they want to go:

• Goal #4: Enhance business vitality through targeted recruitment, expansion and entrepreneurship efforts

• Goal #5: Invest in the infrastructure and amenities needed to attract new businesses and talent

Historically, Miller said La Center’s economic struggles have been due to a lack of suitable business- or industrial-zoned sites. But with the recent annexation of property along Interstate 5, new and much-needed commercial and industrial land now exists within the city’s jurisdiction, giving La Center the ability to pursue new industries and employers. However, infrastructure development is a key part of the work the city knows it must complete before it can begin courting various industries in earnest.

“One of the tenets of the CREDC and this kind of standard approach,” Miller explained, “is to make sure that the property you’re targeting has the facilities and infrastructure ready to support. And that’s what we’re trying to do now.”

“We’re a little behind,” added La Center’s Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis. “We don’t rank as high as other areas do, as far as shovel-ready goes. We’ve got some work on infrastructure and utilities to get in the ground.”

As outlined in the city’s development plan, “Companies making site location decisions desire shovel-ready sites that allow construction to commence in a timely manner.” As such, the city is taking a targeted, step-by-step approach to preparing itself for future economic development.

“We’re working on extending sewer systems throughout the newly annexed area,” Miller said. “We recently updated our waste water treatment facility. We have capacity coming out our ears for now, and the ability to update quickly if we need to.

“We’ve identified four clusters that are most likely and most suitable for locating up here,” he added. “Light industrial manufacturing and materials supplies, logistics and distribution, electronics like home and technical appliances, and retail. Extensive industrial uses would have a tough row to hoe here.”

For the right business, Miller maintained that La Center is a perfect match.

“You’re right on I-5, so you’ve got a major international land corridor, the Ports of Ridgefield and Vancouver, plus the Portland metro area,” he said. “You have access to every kind of transportation and considerable capacity. It’s incredibly suitable for companies that want to serve the I-5 corridor up through and including Portland and Tacoma, because you can serve both with just one facility.”