The 2019 economic forecast for Clark County calls for scattered cranes, with a strong chance of new high rise buildings and tech companies entering the area.
Construction applications and pre-applications have been growing steadily in Vancouver since 2016, and that trend looks to continue well into 2019, with construction on the Waterfront Project, housing, schools and several other projects planned well into the year. More high wage, high tech companies have also expressed interest in the area to the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), which has been courting businesses and growing the workforce in the five key areas of computer and electronics, clean tech, software, metals and machinery and life sciences.
“If you drive down the road you see cranes and construction crews throughout the county,” said Max Ault, interim president of CREDC. “With the amount of activity with construction, there are not enough construction workers to fill current jobs, and we expect that to continue into 2019. The companies we work with are continuing to hire people, too. Our work with our educational and workforce partners continues to translate into ongoing hiring with the companies we’re working with.”
City of Vancouver continues to see new projects
In 2018 the city of Vancouver launched a new online permitting process, which is slowly getting adopted by more builders. And across the board, applications for every category of permit have increased over the past three years, said Chad Eiken, the Vancouver Community and Economic Development Director.
Pre-applications, which hint at how many projects are coming in the new year, have grown from 113 in 2017, to 131 in 2018 as of mid-December.
“That’s one of our indicators that we will be busy,” Eiken said. “Those will turn into land use applications and those turn into building permits.”
Other permitting areas also increased. Land use applications also increased from 369 in 2017 to 435 as of mid-December.
“That’s another sign that a lot more construction is coming,” Eiken said. “Unless things really drop off, we’ll see new building permits applied for after that step. Usually there’s a six-month lag before we see those, so I think we’ll be very busy next year.”
There was also a 13 percent increase in building permits in 2018, growing from 8,679 in 2017 to 9,841 by mid-December.
And the permits span across the city, not just on the much-publicized Waterfront Project, he added.
“It’s all over, really,” Eiken said. “The Waterfront Project is maybe just two of those. There’s a lot of multi-family housing happening. We’re also seeing a lot of school projects because Evergreen School District and Vancouver School District passed their bonds.”
Voters passed a $695 million bond for the Evergreen School District and a $458 million bond for the Vancouver School District, six-year levies that will fund a host of construction projects around both districts.
“They’re building some new schools in both districts,” Eiken said. “Every school in the Vancouver School District is having some major improvement done, whether it’s an addition or new football stadium. It’s a huge number of projects on a tight timeline, and they’ll be staggering it for the new school year, with a lot of work happening in the summer.”
That work alone should insulate the construction sector from an economic downturn, should one occur in the next few years. And for now, there’s a big shortage of workers, Eiken said.
“Even if we were to see a slowdown in other areas, those are levies, and they’re recession proof,” Eiken said. “Right now, because things are booming everywhere, it’s hard to find available labor, actually. For big projects the cranes are all rented. It’s those kinds of things that could make it harder to get projects moving.”
Port of Vancouver will see a year of construction
The Port of Vancouver, which finished its budget process in November, is also expecting a year of construction – mostly in the form of ground stabilization work to prepare for its Terminal 1 buildout. The stabilization will allow Vesta Hospitality to construct the planned AC By Marriott hotel on the property, and will also pave the way for the Renaissance Trail to extend through the area.
“Ground stabilization will take place pretty much all of next year and then they can start building the hotel,” said Julianna Marler, CEO of the port. “That will also help underly the Renaissance Trail. Our goal is to have the stabilization done as close to the end of 2019 as possible.”
The port recently completed several capital projects, investing in facilities, docks and rail. It is now transitioning to more of a maintenance mode, said Abbi Russell, a spokeswoman.
“We have a capital project budget of about $8.5 million for staff, labor and materials,” Russell said. “About $1.8 million is targeted at the terminals, and another $6.7 or so is targeted at the maintenance of assets.”
Tariff issues and the trade war between the United States and China has caused some disruption in products flowing through the port, but the port has also diversified over the past few years, making it strong enough to weather that storm, Marler said.
“A lot of our revenue is generated from our marine terminals,” Marler said. “We made sure we have diversified products coming through so we can maintain stability.”
One product area that may see an increase in shipping through the port in 2019 is wind energy. Wind tax credits were extended for the last five years, but that stops at the end of 2019. That means companies will be cranking out blades and other products before the deadline, Marler said.
“We do anticipate seeing more wind energy next year, even though we haven’t seen much in the last two years,” Marler said. “We don’t anticipate the current (Trump) Administration will extend those tax credits again.”
The port is also seeking a new bulk facility to come into its Terminal 5, which has a big rail loop at the westernmost part of the terminal. The site, where Vancouver Energy would have been located, would be perfect for agriculture, liquid bulk or mineral bulk products, and could house two companies, Marler said.
“There’s some potential for us to market that site,” Marler said.
CREDC continues to recruit businesses
As for business recruitment throughout the county, CREDC is riding a wave of wins in 2018, Ault said.
The organization recruited eight new companies to the area and helped 11 local companies grow and expand in 2018.
“We’ve remained really busy with out-of-state inquiries, not just nationally but internationally,” Ault said. “With the activity we’ve seen in the fourth quarter of 2018 and the continued interest, we’re going to assume on January 2, we’ll be off to the races with more activity.”
CREDC’s strategic plan and focus on five growing sectors of the economy should also help insulate the local market if a recession occurs, but for now things are booming, Ault said.
“With the data we gathered to launch the strategic plan, I would assume we’ll see potential for growth continue in our five sectors,” Ault said.
CREDC is also currently in talks with at least one big employer that’s seriously considering the area. The goal is to finalize that deal by the second quarter of 2019, he said.
“We’re optimistic about 2019,” Ault said. “Our top goals are to make sure we support our existing base of companies, invest in our workforce and continue to hit the mark for being an affordable place to live with a high quality of life. We feel like we have the competitive advantage.