Around a third of Clark County’s workforce – 60,000 residents – commute for work each day across the Columbia River into Oregon. In coming years, a regional economic plan may create greater job opportunities in Clark County, allowing workers to take advantage of a preferable tax system and also to avoid deteriorating traffic conditions.
According to the Columba River Economic Development Council (CREDC), 80 percent of those commuters would take a Clark County-based job of equal or slightly less pay if it were available. It’s a preference that could play a role in the region’s long-term economic development as the county looks to attract new employers. CREDC is a public-private partnership formed in 1982 and composed of over 150 businesses and local government partners.
According to the surveys, Clark County commuters would prefer jobs located within the county to avoid Oregon’s state income tax, as well as the horrific congestion on the century-old bi-state bridge. It’s an attitude shared by the county’s small businesses and industry reps, according to Phase II of CREDC’s five-year Clark County Comprehensive Economic Development Plan.
“Overwhelmingly, the community views no income tax in Clark County as a leading strength for the community,” the plan states. “However, the weight of this asset needs to be taken into context. If a company outside the Portland region was looking to expand, it needs to be determined through other factors why the company would choose Clark County over Spokane, WA or Williamson County, TX, which also do not have an income tax.”
Although state House lawmakers have been appointed to a new bi-state bridge advisory committee, business organizations expect the poor traffic conditions within the I-5 corridor to remain, according to the CREDC plan.
That fact alone is why the region could likely see an uptick in the number of Clark County residents avoiding the river crossing for a job, says Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.
He told Lens: “I think that sooner or later it’s (commuting to Oregon) going to start leveling off, partly due to there’s only so many people you can fit on those bridges. The changes in Clark County’s economic structure means it’s going to attract and see more expansion for those higher-end professional management jobs.”
He cites the growth of companies such as Fisher Investment in Camas, a city of 22,000 located east of Vancouver, as an indication of how this transformation may occur.
“Those are all high-end, corporate headquarter-type jobs, and that’s changing the mix,” he said. “I think once you change the mix and get over the hump, people start to view the community differently.”
However, he doesn’t expect a large influx of Oregon-based businesses into Washington. “The river is a barrier in some ways, because if you’re a business in Oregon looking at setting up a branch in Clark County, it’s a different tax regime, different regulations. It adds a little bit of complexity.”
If Clark County residents want to quit commuting to Oregon, it just confirms observations made by Vancouver Downtown Association Executive Director Steve Becker. He told Lens that “one of the most common interactions (we have) are with people who are tired of traffic on the bridge.” Many of them are business owners and entrepreneurs “looking for opportunities to move their businesses to Vancouver or open a business in Vancouver.”
“The bottleneck (on the bi-state bridge) is forcing a lot of people to rethink their professional lives,” he added.
While CREDC touts commuters as available labor for employers that might consider moving to or opening a new office in Clark County, the public-private partnership has also noted the growing trend among millennials to drive less, which could benefit Washington cities adjacent to Portland, such as Vancouver, that are already attracting tech companies from other regions.
In addition to improving the city’s support for startup companies, CREDC’s plan envisions downtown Vancouver as “vibrant, dynamic and growing,” a concept realized through projects such as Columbia Waterfront, LLC’s Waterfront Development Project that will offer 3,300 residential units and nearly 1 million square feet of office space.
“Our downtown has become a very active place,” Becker said. “We’re seeing a tremendous surge in construction of residential housing downtown. There’s an increasing demand for living space for walkable communities.”
“We’re seeing an increasing number of people that want to live downtown because it’s a walkable community,” he added. “People just simply don’t need to travel distances like that (Oregon) to find work.”