Land for jobs: Clark County’s major obstacle

Public, private entities working together to increase industrial & commercial site inventory

Lifting concrete blocks

There are a lot of moving parts to creating a shovel-ready parcel of land for the industrial or commercial real estate market. To name a few, there’s purchase negotiations, zoning, roads, water and sewer, telecommunication services, power supply, stormwater issues, wetland issues and multiple layers of permits. Having a plentiful supply of such parcels would, according to Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), spur economic development in Southwest Washington. Public and private entities, such as the county, cities, the CREDC and local engineering and commercial real estate brokerage firms, are working together to develop a strategy to do just that.

The CREDC defines “shovel-ready” as parcels of 20 acres or more that could start development within 18 months. According to the CREDC’s survey last year, there are only about 13 such sites – 570 acres – in Clark County, and many of them are lacking one or more infrastructure elements such as roads, rail service, water or sewer.

So, how can Southwest Washington increase its available “land for jobs”?

Brent Grening, executive director for the Port of Ridgefield, said that “we have to designate the right amount of land, and the right parcel [because] if it’s isolated, it’s not worth much.” Then, he continued, we need to prioritize capital investment.

Nisenfeld said that the CREDC is “plotting strategy with our board and engineers, attorneys, real estate professionals” and the three ports. She did mention that the loss of county funding has slowed the CREDC’s efforts down, but are continuing to make progress with volunteers and existing staff.

“I hope that within two months,” explained Nisenfeld, “we’ll have a more formalized plan to announce for getting real estate to market,” and added they were considering two pilot sites (one private, one public).

Bringing a site to market, said Nisenfeld, has two major areas of activity – identifying parcels and reducing the time it takes to obtain the necessary permits.

Where’s the real estate?

Helen Devery, vice president of local engineering firm Berger ABAM as well as chair of the CREDC’s Land for Jobs committee and chair of the Clark County Development Engineering Advisory Board,

said the 13 potential sites identified by the CREDC last year are not evenly distributed. She said a few were in Vancouver, six in Camas, and five in Ridgefield, but none in Washougal or unincorporated county.

However, Grening pointed out, that list is fluid. For example, the Port of Camas/Washougal’s Steigerwald Commercial Center didn’t make the CREDC list because, said Nisenfeld, they thought it would take three or more years to develop.

“They brought the Steigerwald Commerce Center along faster than anyone thought possible,” Nisenfeld said.

She said the CREDC was starting dialog about how the ports can not only work in their districts but outside their boundaries.

“Their tools for assembling land and providing infrastructure are really important, and there is a lot we can learn from them,” said Nisenfeld.

Steve Morasch, attorney at Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt PC, said that the county might consider expanding the urban growth boundary in 2016 to accommodate manufacturing, such as the 200-acre Lagler Dairy property south of Battle Ground. Although included in the UBG in 2007, the land was removed by appeal.

“The world has changed since 2007,” said Morasch. “Long-term, that piece will play a critical part.”

Snell said the county was considering revisiting the 2004 Focused Public Investment Area (FPIA) report. The report, which was never actually implemented, states “in the past, Clark County has dispersed its capital improvement expenditures throughout the county, providing partial solutions in many areas, but not complete solutions within priority areas…The county is considering focusing capital improvements for a variety of services in specific areas, rather than implementing capital improvements more broadly.”

How soon can it be ready?

As permitting timeframes have gotten longer, more difficult and more expensive, said Grening, it makes other areas look more attractive.

“We have to make it easier and more affordable, or businesses just won’t come,” stated Grening.

To this end, the CREDC, the county and the Clark County Development Engineering Advisory Board are working together to shave as much time off the permitting process as possible.

Nisenfeld said that most cities and the county have done a good job of reducing permitting time, but with state and federal permits “the time balloons considerably.” She said the CREDC is starting conversations with the Washington State Department of Ecology to make the process timelier, such as performing reviews in parallel and eliminating duplicate reviews. She said the governor’s office has acknowledged this effort as a high priority.

Marty Snell, executive director of community development for Clark County, Snell said that the county has applied lean process analysis to their single-family residence permitting process, and hopes to apply the same improvements to other processes, such as commercial permitting. He also said they were analyzing whether Clark County’s timelines for site improvement plan reviews were competitive within the region.

Certainty, said Devery, is very important to potential industrial or commercial land customers. Therefore, she said, the Clark County Development Engineering Advisory Board is working with all the cities and Clark County to create a predictable, lean, timely permitting process. Concepts include an expedited review process, simplifying the development code and implementing an electronic submittal system, as well as revisiting county environmental regulations to simplify the permitting process

“There are lots of things going on right now,” said Devery.

This sort of collaboration, said Snell, is important.

“To implement a strategy will take partnerships and on-going dialog about how we work together to make sure we have [the appropriate] infrastructure, review processes and timelines,” he said.

Curtis Shuck, executive director, Port of Vancouver, concurred.

“One of most powerful outcomes from the CREDC’s Land for Jobs effort has been the recognition that if we all try to do our own thing, we will be less effective than if we work together, understand what we need in inventory and develop strategy and priorities,” said Shuck.

Centennial Industrial Park progressing

According to Curtis Shuck, executive director for the Port of Vancouver, the port hopes to complete the infrastructure for phase 1 (58 acres) of their 108-acre Centennial Industrial Park (CIP) by this summer, thanks to a $5.7 million grant through Washington’s 2012 Jobs Now Act.

Shuck said that early partnership with the city of Vancouver and the CREDC’s Land for Jobs designation for the CIP site illustrated to the state that public and private entities are collaborating in Southwest Washington to help generate jobs.

“It emphasizes the power of partnerships,” said Shuck. “It’s a nice cliché, but this is a tangible example – this is what we can do if we truly work together.”

Shuck said the port hopes phase 1 of the CIP will provide 500 jobs, and expects to have tenants by early next year.
“We’re already talking to prospective tenants – there is quite a bit of interest,” he noted.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.