Examining economic development: Ridgefield

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

Ridgefield developmentDavid Copenhaver is bracing for a projected real estate boom in Ridgefield.

“It has the infrastructure and zoning and is ready to go,” said Copenhaver of Venia Development, a Vancouver-based real estate developer. “I can’t think of another place in Portland that looks so attractive.”

While it’s hard to say exactly when development will take off, especially with the economic rollercoaster we’ve all been on, it’s not just developers who are banking on Ridgefield’s growth potential.

In June, consulting firm TIP Strategies Inc. released the draft Clark County Economic Development Plan – a 140-page document that outlines some of the challenges and goals to help buoy the county’s economy in the wake of the Great Recession, which led to shuttered businesses and record-high levels of unemployment. The Columbia River Economic Development Council and a project steering committee, made up of public and private stakeholders, helped to guide the project.

Among the development plan’s goals for the county: Establish Clark County as an information technology hub, expand economic development with educational opportunities at Washington State University, Vancouver and Clark College, make the region a destination for foreign investments, recruit more business and invest in infrastructure and amenities that businesses and a talented labor pool would find attractive.

Diane Dempcy, manager of investor relations for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, explained the development plan this way: “It’s a new economy,” Dempcy said. “Clark County, like a lot of other communities, has been a boom and bust economy. Manufacturing is still going to be important to Clark County, but it’s producing more (goods) while employing less people. A new day requires a new economy.”

To that end, Ridgefield is evolving with the times. The one-time port town has shifted a focus toward Interstate 5 and rail with the Discovery Corridor, where chunks of land have been zoned for industrial use. Located adjacent to the freeway, some 85,000 cars travel through the corridor daily. And its placement along the interstate makes it an attractive site for distribution, especially to the Portland area.

“A lot of people are saying that the Discovery Corridor is the next Hillsboro,” Copenhaver said.

The city has some 17,700 residents. Median household income is about $68,000 per year. And many of the residents commute for work.

Copenhaver points out present-day opportunities based on the current residential demographics: The town is underserved when it comes to banks and services, especially fast food restaurants. In 2010, the area saw about $3 million in dining sales, but Copenhaver says it could easily support $11.3 million.

“The fact is that the ratio of goods to services is woefully short there,” Copenhaver said.

The Port of Ridgefield started the Discovery Corridor in 2001, about the same time that the city limits were expanded to include the area for future development.

“We heard time and again from developers that they were interested in transportation capacity,” said Justin Clary, Ridgefield city manager, adding that with zoning and regulations in place, the area is shovel-ready and geared for new businesses.

Meanwhile, the city is working on the logistics for both business expansion and population growth, which is projected to increase to 19,500 by 2015. Ridgefield is also pursuing water rights for a new million gallon reservoir and is exploring how sewer water might be treated regionally, according to Clary.

Meanwhile, progress continues on the Port of Ridgefield waterfront site.

Mike Williams, marketing and communication manager for the Port of Ridgefield, doesn’t have a projected end date to the steam-cleaning operation, a $70-million environmental mop-up from  the port’s days as a wood treatment facility. But plans are in the works for development along the 40-acre riverfront as the clean-up continues. 

Once complete, the riverside mixed-use locale will be home to light industrial, retail shops, perhaps some winemaking and will feature parks and trails, all a nice addition to the city and a lure for visitors (some 165,000 people visit the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge each year, making the project a natural stopping point).

Williams also said federal funding for a railroad overpass project – trains often stall waterfront traffic – is in the works. He estimates, with a recent $3.5 million award, that a third of the funds needed to complete the project is in hand. The design work is about 90 percent complete and construction should begin by fall of next year, Williams said.

All of which is good news to developers, like Copenhaver, who want to see real estate development interest move beyond window shopping and into construction, leasing and a vibrant economy.

And as the draft Clark County Economic Development Plan rolls out and local communities band together with a unified economic vision, Ridgefield, the hope goes, will benefit.

“A rising tide floats all boats,” said Clary.