The VBJ spoke with Board of Clark County Commission, District 1, candidates Tom Mielke, R-Battle Ground, and Pam Brokaw, D-Vancouver, in separate interviews to get their take on the biggest issues facing local businesses.
VBJ: What is the most significant issue facing Clark County businesses and what do you plan to do about it?
Pam Brokaw: "Just getting through this unprecedented tough economic time…It's important that the county does all it can to help local businesses keep their doors open and connect them to other businesses and support.
The next step after that triage is to support and grow business and build infrastructure to grow."
Tom Mielke: "It's the permitting process we have…There's duplication of work (by county engineers creating) a delay in businesses going forward. The process takes anywhere from 30 days to seven years. I would streamline that. We wouldn't duplicate. When we have an architect give us engineered prints, that architect is responsible if the building falls down. We need to follow building codes, but we don't need the (county) engineer redo those prints. And I don't want to willy-nilly remove all regulations, as my opponent has said I do."
VBJ: What impacts do you think national economic problems will have on Clark County and what can commissioners do about it?
Brokaw: "It's important to find ways to come together to assure people we'll come through this as a community – getting past this initial fear. From a county perspective there's significant tightening taking place and tightening to keep providing basic services. I anticipate that will continue after January.
We need to look at what we can do to streamline our processes and interface with business so we're not an impediment to business – getting our own house in order at the county.
There are so many people who are losing their jobs and homes and we need to make sure folks get connected to resources to help them. If there are federal resources they can use, I think that's going to be essential. I started this campaign saying we need to build an economic development team that gets the best minds together to talk about what we can do to grow business, about the infrastructure and investments needed.
A lot of people are talking about bringing new business, but there are a lot of wonderful businesses that are already here. So what can we do to grow the existing businesses?
Mielke: "I think what we can do is limit (the local impacts). What we have to do at this time is not raise taxes – that's how we got into the Great Depression. We need to make it easier for entrepreneurs to do business. If people get laid off and want to sell apples at the corner, they need to be able to do that.
We need to be business-friendly and say, ‘If I'm in your way, I'll get out of your way. Here are the common sense rules you need to follow, now good luck with your business.' I come to this as a business owner for 18 years. I don't want government in my way."
VBJ: What does Clark County need to attract more family-wage jobs?
Brokaw: "We need to stabilize locally first and lean on our government to get through a couple of tough fiscal years in county government. Then we need to figure out what to do to bring in jobs.
We need to streamline the permitting process. We need to invest in infrastructure, from road improvements to burying power lines to make areas more appealing. We need to be more supportive of our higher education institutions, such as Washington State University Vancouver, which is bringing out a new generation of engineers.
We need to look at community supported agriculture. We have the opportunity to work closely with our ports. The Port of Vancouver is a port of entry for the wind power industry. We have an opportunity to go aggressively after green companies, but we have to talk with them about what they need first.
It's important that (county employees) working with the public are business-friendly and understand what it's like to run a business – the pressures they're working with. Time is money, and interface between business and government needs to be as efficient as it can be."
Mielke: "We need to take a look at a good starting point. Besides permitting and business-friendly practices, we have to have a transportation system in place.
We're still building homes in the ideal areas for heavy commercial industrial zoning.
We need to go across the river to the major job suppliers and ask them what they need to bring a satellite office over here. If we do that, we solve the traffic problem in Delta Park and people could save on taxes.
I was (helping another business look) for 10 acres of useable land. We're talking a multi-million-dollar deal here and he could not find 10 acres of useable land. That's because our comprehensive plan doesn't have enough industrial and heavy industrial zoning… His alternative was to look for a yard in Portland."
VBJ: What needs to happen with county fees and regulations for businesses?
Brokaw: "We absolutely need to look at them, especially for some of the smaller development projects. Some folks in the community are finding that the cost is so difficult to meet that they walk away.
It shouldn't cost more to permit something than it does to build something. When you're looking at a downturn (in the economy), even a small development is going to provide payroll, put food on the table and put business in local stores. We need to protect the quality of our environment and water and neighborhoods, but I don't think (that and development) are mutually exclusive.
People in business would like some predictability and definition, and when it takes five months to get that, it costs money."
Mielke: "Our impact fees are to the point of being ridiculous…We don't have affordability for homes and businesses. Our values of property are nearly that of Portland and because of that, we're not desirable. They might as well go to Portland. When we have impact fees with permitting, fees on the average home are going to skyrocket to an average of $50,000 per home. It used to be $30,000. If they continue to implement the mandated (stormwater regulations), we will be up to $50,000."
VBJ: How should Clark County handle development with its projected population growth?
Brokaw: "It makes sense to develop as thoughtfully as we can with an eye on the long-term.
Team 99 (a group of business leaders, neighbors and property owners working to redevelop the Highway 99 area) has been looking at Hazel Dell and the Three Creeks area and is asking about walkability, townhouses, green space and access to public transportation and businesses. (I was glad to see) cottage developments, shared green space and smaller footprints in those discussions.
What we need are options, particularly in housing…I love the Battle Ground Village model and Ridgefield's waterfront (development plan). We need to think about what makes a livable community. For me, it's not asphalt and tiny, densely constructed developments."
Mielke: "I think we made the mistake of not planning for growth. Growth just happens. We have more than 6,000 kids graduate from local schools every year. They are looking for jobs and affordable homes and right now we don't have that. Right now, half of my family doesn't live here (because of that).
The people moving into our community have voted themselves out of Portland. They've taxed themselves out of affordable housing…The infrastructure, the sewer water and streets – they weren't built for the density we're building and we're losing quality of life."
VBJ: What is your stance on the Columbia River Crossing project? If your views on the project were made into reality, how would that impact businesses?
Brokaw: This represents another piece of aging infrastructure we're seeing nationwide. I look at it as a public safety issue. It is a key component to West Coast interstate commerce.
Think about what would happen if that bridge went down in a large quake. We're very seismic here. From the standpoint of the 60,000 people who cross the river, we've got to invest in that bridge. I see light rail as a tool.
More than anything, I'm pro-where's the money gonna come from? Not long ago, we talked about the federal government paying for the bulk of it, and I think it should. It's not appropriate or fair for Clark County or Washington State to shoulder an unreasonable amount of the cost. We need transportation options. We need an effective public transportation system with the costs of fuel going up. A strong transportation system is certainly an asset when courting new businesses."
Mielke: I was part of a delegation in 1996 that agreed with Oregon that the corridor was full. There are no more lanes to out there and there's no way to remove the gridlock. We said we needed a new corridor and did nothing about it.
We're looking at $4 billion for a bridge that will not remove congestion, by the CRC commission's own admission. I proposed trying to get a third and maybe fourth bridge built. The third bridge could be down river where the rail road is. … You'd pick up more freight mobility money beyond road building money and you would not need tolls.
When you build that bridge down there, you should build it for the future and it should be light rail compatible. If people vote against it, you could use the extra rail for extra freight. "
VBJ: What's your stance on the proposed Cowlitz Tribal Casino and what business issues shape that idea?
Brokaw: "The federal government will make the decisions. The (county) commissioners have two areas where they can act on this to benefit the community. They can make a strong comment on the Environmental Impact Statement, and they did. And they have the authority to enter into an agreement to address the impacts of the development.
I believe it needs to be consistent with the findings of the EIS. When you think about the county's Memorandum of Understanding, there was no EIS. That MOU needs to be as comprehensive as it can be and it needs to be consistent. I haven't taken a position on it. The federal process is unfolding. My job is to protect this community. My personal opinion about gambling and the casino isn't germane to this. I look at it as a development. Can we mitigate the impacts it will have on the community, on the environment, transportation, lost revenues and impacts on the schools? I'm not going to sign it if it's not good for the community."
Mielke: "The Cowlitz Casino is like liquor or cigarettes – it's legal if they pay their fair share. For them to move into Clark County and not pay their fair share, the burden of infrastructure falls on the tax payer, not on the tribe. Until they can step up and pay ongoing costs like any other business, I'm not there.
The MOU from the beginning was inadequate. That's when they proposed a small restaurant and casino. Since then it has grown to the third largest (casino) in the nation. It would be a burden on our health care system and our schools.
The average income for a casino (employee) is $28,000 a year, and then you're back into dense housing because it's all they can afford to live in. Then we pick up the cost of kids in schools form low income homes. The Cowlitz need to step up like anyone else would to pay the impacts of coming here."
VBJ: What should be the plan for agricultural lands in the next 10 years?
Brokaw: "Agriculture is changing in Clark County. We're seeing growth of smaller farms. We absolutely need to talk with farmers about what they need to grow this new market. The county began those conversations and needs to continue them.
The challenge is the regulation processes make it difficult for farmers, and we need to look at that and get into partnership mode, looking at new models for working with farmers."
Mielke: I come from a farming family…The mentality is to recognize and give the property rights back to the farmer. If he's going to retire and can't find someone to give enough money for his land, for his retirement investment, then he needs to have the right to sell pieces of that for his retirement…We have implemented all these regulations on the farmers and their land. If I was farming my property the environmental law says I can't have cattle near a seasonal creek even though it's only wet a couple months a year. So now I've lost a swath of my property that's at least 200 feet wide. My neighbor has two seasonal creeks going across his land and technically he can't run cattle at all. He can't build there. But if I lived in town by Salmon Creek I could build really close to it. We're not treated the same in the rural area."
VBJ: What made you want to run for this position in the first place?
Brokaw: "I had a number of people suggest I run. I didn't want to run if I didn't think I could make a significant difference in the quality of life in the community.
At the end of the day, I thought, ‘I want to be part of moving our county forward. It will be hard, but let's do it.' I want to protect quality of life, to protect and nurture agriculture and sustainable business development, and help provide a range of housing options. I realized that's something I can't do on my own. We have to do it in partnership.
Mielke: Being on a local (legislative) government committee, I was able to keep my foot on the encroachment of government on property rights and building codes. But when it came to the local level, they had to obey state laws and could supersede through county ordinances.
So I thought I could be more helpful by working at the local level than from the state level. The state level is great because I still have those contacts, like Betty Sue (Morris) does, and good or bad, you can use those contacts to change things affecting the county."
Charity Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.