Clark County is representative of “non-urban America,” and local leaders should work hard to promote that fact.
That was among the ideas Fisher Investments CEO Ken Fisher touched on during his keynote speech at The Columbian’s Clark County 2015 Economic Forecast Breakfast Thursday.
Attended by more than 500 people, the event held at the Vancouver Hilton also featured panel discussions on topics ranging from development opportunities to building a small business.
Fisher Investments, a $60 billion California-based money management firm, moved into a new, five-story building at 5525 N.W. Fisher Creek Drive, in Camas, in 2011. There is also a one-story building for processing and printing operations. A second, five-story building opened on the 150-acre campus in 2014.
Fisher, who owns a home in Camas and often walks to work, said his company now has 941 Washington employees, many of whom have moved to the area from locations around the country.
“The biggest problem is getting people to want to come here, because as soon as we say ‘Camas,’ they say, ‘Huh?,'” he said. “Then we say, ‘Vancouver,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you mean Canada?’ And then we say, ‘Portland,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you mean we’re supposed to get purple hair?'”
With other Fisher Investments locations in Woodside, Calif., London and Frankfurt, Germany, he said by far the lowest employee turnover rate is at the Camas facility.
“Once you actually get them here, they are happier,” said Fisher, attributing those feelings to the area’s high quality schools, low crime rate, desirable lifestyle, lack of state income tax, proximity to the Portland airport and access to affordable housing.
He highlighted the benefits of Clark County’s rural and suburban lifestyle, and recommended to the audience that they stop thinking of it as being under the Portland-Metro area’s umbrella.
“Think of yourself as yourself,” he said. “That may sound like a strange thing to say, but there are people in this room that think of this area as itself, and there are other people who think of this area as part of Portland-Metro. If you banish that Portland-Metro part from your head and think just about this area, you will be better off. While there are bad things about every place, there ain’t nothing wrong with this area.”
Fisher was less complimentary about Portland, which he classified as “urban America.” And while he touted the benefits of the Portland International Airport, he indicated he generally prefers to stay on the north side of the Columbia River.
“I’ve got a lot of class and all of it’s low, and I’ve got a lot of taste and all of it’s bad,” he said. “I see all of these people who suffer from inferiority complexes and want to go be a foodie in Portland, and I will do that when I am dragged by chains.”
‘We’ve been making real progress’
The Economic Forecast Breakfast, in its 31st year, also featured Scott Bailey, a regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department.
He described the local economic outlook as positive.
“In terms of job growth, we’ve had a fabulous year,” he said, explaining that the 4.5 percent job growth rate is balanced across the economy. “We’ve been making real progress. It drives unemployment lower.”
This upswing follows a recession that put the local economy into “a huge hole.”
“We’re getting out of that hole, but we’re still very much in a recovery phase, not yet to an expansion phase,” he said.
Lagging behind are wages and income.
“There are still thousands of former workers on the sidelines, not reflected in the unemployment rate, which is still too high,” Bailey said, adding that unemployment of youth, ages 25 to 34, has been the most severely impacted.
“This recession had a much larger impact on younger people than it did on older people in terms of jobs and wages,” he said.
According to Bailey, lack of affordable housing remains an issue.
“Affordable housing is basically non-existent,” he said. “Vacancy rates are really low. We have a lot of people with jobs who are having a hard time finding a place to live, much less an affordable place to live. That’s totally chewing up their income and really hampers our recovery, because so much of their income is going into rent instead of going into spending on other stuff.”
Clark County has more jobs on the upper end of the pay scale, but fewer jobs in the middle to low end of the pay scale. This, Bailey said, can be attributed to companies that have relocated or shifted employment to Clark County like Fisher Investments and PeaceHealth, and soon Banfield Pet Hospital, which will open its headquarters at Columbia Tech Center near 192nd Avenue and Mill Plain later this year.
“It’s a shift toward more management, professional upper-end jobs that is going to be a boon for this community going forward,” Bailey said. “I’m pretty optimistic right now. I think we are in a pretty good spot and it’s going to get better.”
Fisher said if the goal is to continue to grow jobs in Clark County, he would recommended adding more direct flights that cross the Atlantic Ocean into Europe from PDX, and building an airport in north Clark County similar to the fixed base operator airports in Hillsboro and Troutdale, Ore. He also suggested promoting the area’s high quality public school system.
Many fail to realize that the greatest amount of job growth in America, Fisher said, has come from its non-urban areas.
“My advice to this community is to focus on what you are, which is part of that ‘other’ America, and promote that and focus that on the north side of the river,” he said. “Let Portland be Portland, and you guys be you.”
The Clark County Economic Forecast Breakfast can be viewed at www.cvtv.org.