Economic developers have been working on Southwest Washington’s Discovery Corridor for almost 20 years now, and that forward planning is starting to pay off.
With the entertainment draw of ilani Casino, a host of new restaurants in Ridgefield and new job creators like Dollar Tree and Parr Lumber moving in, the corridor, which stretches along I-5 from the Clark County Fairgrounds to the new casino, is poised for booming growth. And there’s every indication that growth is coming, according to Brent Grening, CEO of the Port of Ridgefield.
“We have four new freeway interchanges with a lot of undeveloped land around, a growing metropolitan area to the south in Portland, and we’re 20 minutes to the airport,” Grening said. “Areas like that across the U.S. just don’t exist.”
The Discovery Corridor was designated in 1999 with a goal of developing the area for residential, industrial, commercial and retail use, Grening said.
“It really came from north county, the Port of Ridgefield,” he said. “We had a lot of talks about economic development. We were kind of off the map; the map stopped at the fairgrounds. And beyond? Here be dragons. We wanted to change that.”
The goal is to build up a good mix of residential, commercial, industry and support services in order to create a thriving economy in the area – and that has started to happen.
“The Discovery Corridor is being currently marketed as a great active recreation and entertainment destination for both tourism and talent attraction in relation to economic development,” said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. “It is also the top area for large development-ready sites in the region and is poised for tremendous growth.”
Along with Parr Lumber and the Dollar Tree distribution center, United Natural Foods Inc. has also moved into the region, with many other businesses exploring the idea, Grening said.
“What we see happening now was predictable back when we first started,” Grening said. “Portland’s land use is constrained. They’ve put barriers in to halt growth. Clark County is a great outlet for that growth.”
ilani, which opened on April 24, and other improvements by the Cowlitz Tribe have also helped to push growth forward and drawn new people to the area, Bomar said.
“The investment made by the Cowlitz Tribe to complete the recently constructed La Center interchange has created new opportunities for both the ilani Casino Resort as well as surrounding development sites,” Bomar said. “The cities of La Center and Ridgefield have done an excellent job at aligning planning efforts and infrastructure investments to be able to capitalize on the increased visitor trips and casino-related investments.”
Millions of dollars have also been spent in the intervening years on infrastructure projects to prepare Ridgefield, La Center, Salmon Creek and Battle Ground for an influx of new residents. Investments include new freeway interchanges, sewer and road development and installation of high speed fiber internet infrastructure in Ridgefield.
“In some ways we’ve done phenomenally well,” Grening said. “If you look at north county from the map, the roads out here are on a mile square grid, with only a few miles of missing link.”
And they’re fixing some of those links – like the Whipple Creek Crossing on 10th by Fred Meyer and the fairgrounds.
“It’s being planned now, and with that link, people will be able to get around locally without getting onto I-5,” Grening said.
Forward planning also helped move some parts of the Discovery Corridor forward during the Great Recession, despite the economic downturn, he added.
Because the interchange projects were pretty much shovel-ready early in the planning process, local governments were able to get recovery project funding for highway interchange improvements from the federal government.
“We’ve done a lot of transportation work in the last 17 years or so,” Grening said.
There’s also an educational and industrial development part of the plan. Washington State University Vancouver’s expansion to a four-year research institution is part of that, as is Clark College’s growth and focus on areas like mechatronics and advanced manufacturing.
“When we think forward, with Clark College coming in and doing tactical job skills, basic skills plus that next level of technical skills, we think we’ll be well placed to grow industries like advanced manufacturing and 3-D printing,” Grening said. “I see a suite of things coming in the vein of mechatronics, virtual reality, augmented reality and robotics.”
Legacy Hospital’s Salmon Creek campus, which has spawned a few medical complexes in the area, is another growing industrial sector, he said.
“There’s several hundred workers now coming to work in Ridgefield that weren’t before,” Grening said. “It wasn’t because we named the corridor, but by putting a name to it and defining it, we were able to say hey, this is a tremendous opportunity for Southwest Washington.”
Grening likes to describe what economic developers are creating in the region as a “talent habitat.”
“We’re working with Ridgefield, La Center, even a bit of Battle Ground trying to figure out what this will look like in the future,” Grening said. “We’ve taken the Discovery Corridor idea and talked to people about it from an investment-ready standpoint to the development community. We may not be as well poised for large companies doing complete campus development, but we have developers ready to prepare lots for business.”
And there’s plenty of room for other industries to expand into the area as well, Bomar said.
“CREDC’s 2016 Employment Land Study identified 16 sites of at least 20 acres that are currently zoned for employment and situated along or very near the Discovery Corridor,” Bomar said. “We expect these to be among Clark County’s top opportunity sites for new development over the next several years. Companies that value active employee experiences, require proximity to I-5 and benefit from access to higher education institutions will find this area very attractive. This could range from advanced manufacturing to corporate headquarters, or even niche creative firms.”
Officials are still working on the full marketing plan for the Discovery Corridor, but a much more comprehensive plan is not far on the horizon, Bomar said.
“Both local stakeholders and regional marketing entities have been meeting to discuss how to best tell the story of this area.” Bomar said. “The CREDC’s new comprehensive economic development plan will help guide a focused effort around marketing strategies and resources aimed at attracting targeted spending and investment in the corridor and other key employment sites in Clark County.”
In the coming years, developers think the region will turn into a bustling corridor of commerce, housing, recreation, education and entertainment amenities. One that’s much less expensive to live in than Portland, Grening said.
“This is a very affordable place,” Grening said. “You can buy a lot easier here than you can in Downtown Portland. Companies pay a steep price for that proximity (to I-5), and there’s more services on this side of the river every month. We’re getting to a critical mass.”