Clark County economic roundup for first half of 2015

Economic growth fueled by construction & retail

Construction site

With job growth running at twice the national average, home construction on the rise and retail sales gaining ground, Clark County’s economy appears on solid footing as 2015 reaches the halfway mark. Here’s a roundup:

Home sales in the county are up more than 11 percent with a median sale price of $254,500. Pending home sales in May jumped a strong 23 percent.

Job growth has accelerated with local employers adding 6,100 new jobs in the past 12 months. Overall growth represents a 4.5 percent increase over 2014. Biggest job increases are in professional and business services, up 6.5 percent (1,100 new jobs) and construction, up 6.4 percent (600 jobs).

The county’s taxable retail sales finished 2014 on an upswing. Local retailers racked up $5.29 billion in sales, an increase of 8.5 percent over 2013. That’s a larger increase than Seattle’s King County or Tacoma’s Pierce County and above the statewide average increase of 6.6 percent.

Spending on construction in Clark County last year totaled $894.5 million, up $86 million over 2013, said the Washington Department of Revenue in a new report.

The outlook calls for more growth.

Developers of the Vancouver waterfront project say construction will start on the 32-acre site in spring 2016. And local economic development officials say Clark County is in the running for an aerospace-related company interested in expansion.

Housing is humming

A key piece of Clark County’s recovery is housing construction, which took a hit during the worst of the Great Recession when homebuilding nearly came to a halt. Now, building permit applications are approaching pre-recession levels with 528 permits for single-family home construction issued this year through May. That’s up 26 percent from 416 permits issued last year. Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, said builders are “very busy.” The industry’s biggest challenge, she said, is a shortage of buildable lots.

Sue Pauley, long-time Realtor with Windermere Stellar in Vancouver, agrees.

“Anything (for sale) under $300,000 is getting multiple offers,” Pauley said. “It’s the strongest sellers’ market I’ve seen in 20 years. The inventory is missing especially for baby boomer buyers who want a three-car garage with a one-level living area.”

Pauley lamented that current residential construction zoning requires multi-story townhome projects on small lots. This is not what the market wants, she said.

Single-family home sales have increased this year by nearly 12 percent. May’s median sale price of $272,000 was a 15 percent jump over May 2014.

Local homebuilders face multiple challenges, not just a lack of buildable land, said BIA President Jack Harroun.

General contractors are grappling with a shortage of experienced construction workers, he said, as well as rising building materials costs that have increased by double digits in each of the past two years.

“I’d say the local home building industry in the next 18 to 24 months is cautiously optimistic,” Harroun said. He agrees that zoning constraints and the time it takes to bring a new subdivision on line will play a role in how much new housing is built.

“As long as new jobs are coming into the county, we will see strong demand for housing,” he said. “That’s what we see happening, right now.”

But regional labor economist Scott Bailey cautioned that the county’s rapid job growth rate could be “a bit slower” in the second half of 2015. He said pent-up consumer demand from delayed purchases during the recession may be slowing.”

Retail sales see gains

Clark County taxable retail sales climbed to a record of $5.49 billion in 2014, according to a new report from the Washington Department of Revenue. That’s up 8.5 percent from 2013 and a huge increase over $3.89 billion in 2009 at the worst of the recession.

The county’s retail business base appears to be growing with 24,167 outlets reporting sales. That total is up nearly 5 percent from 2013.

Wilco, which operates 15 farm stores in Washington and Oregon, is among those adding to the retail mix here with a new store planned in East Vancouver at 162nd Place Shopping Center. The store opens Aug. 18 and will employ 30 to 50 people, said Jake Wilson, Wilco spokesman.

“The Vancouver store fills gap in our Southwest Washington coverage,” Wilson said. “Our Battle Ground store is among our top performers and draws people from Vancouver. We see Clark County as a good place to be.”

Rachel Phillips, co-owner of Spanky’s consignment stores in Vancouver and Beaverton, said sales this year have been “very positive” with the Vancouver store at 13503 SE Mill Plain Blvd., up 10 percent over last year.

“I attribute the improvement to a better economy… people are back to spending money,” Phillips said. “We’ve seen a turnaround in the past 12 months, since mid-2014.”