Local economic development group to disband, faces audit

CWEDA, formed in 2011, was led by former Camas mayor

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Contributed photo courtesy of the Port of Camas-Washougal Former Camas Mayor Paul Dennis led the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA) from 2011 to 2019. The economic development group is set to disband in mid-2020.
The Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA), which formed in 2011 to help promote business growth in Camas-Washougal, will no longer exist as of June 2020.
The cities of Camas and Washougal and the Port of Camas-Washougal signed an interlocal agreement amendment earlier this month agreeing to terminate the association in mid-2020.
“CWEDA was successful,” said David Ripp, the Port’s chief executive officer. “Now we’re at the point where that success has kind of run its course.”
The association flourished after a controversial beginning. In May 2011, the Port awarded a contract to Cascade Planning Group and its owner, then-Camas Mayor Paul Dennis, for economic development professional services, and selected Dennis as CWEDA’s president and chief executive officer. One week later, Dennis announced that he would resign as Camas’ mayor at the end of that month.
Soon after, city of Washougal councilors expressed concern about the appearance of a conflict of interest and a potential violation of the city of Camas’ ethics policy, which requires a one-year hiatus for former city employees before they can pursue contracts with the city.
However, city of Camas attorney Roger Knapp concluded the city’s ethics policy did not apply to Cascade Planning Group because the firm was never a part of the city; and that no violation occurred because there was no evidence Dennis used his mayoral position primarily for his personal benefit, and the contract in question was not a contract with the city or with a former employee of the city. The cities’ councilors and the Port commissioners subsequently approved the formation of CWEDA with Dennis as its leader.
In its first eight years of existence, CWEDA helped create an estimated 4,458 jobs and aided in the arrival or expansion of dozens of local businesses, netting more than $6 million in new revenue for the Port and two cities, according to a report released by Vancouver consulting firm E.D. Hovee & Co. in early 2019.
CWEDA helped businesses complete permitting processes; identify local, state and federal incentives; and use regional partnerships to provide access to needed resources.
“CWEDA was very successful when it was first developed because at that time we didn’t have a lot of representation from Vancouver or the Columbia River Economic Development Council,” Port Commissioner Larry Keister said. “(Former) Port Commissioner Mark Lampton suggested that we start our own economic development organization in-house where the two cities and the Port work together. But over the years each (entity) started getting its own development ideas individually.”
The Port, which paid $100,000 annually for the association’s services, hired Derek Jaeger for a newly created business development manager position in September. The city of Camas, which along with the city of Washougal paid $50,000 annually for CWEDA’s aid, is exploring the possibility of hiring for a similar role.
“The Port of Camas-Washougal, one of the member agencies, has retained a position to manage its properties, and the city of Camas has started to take action to fill an economic development manager position,” Camas city administrator Pete Capell said at a Dec. 16 council meeting. “The agencies want to continue to collaborate with economic development for East Clark County, but they don’t need to do it through this particular entity any longer.”
After Dennis resigned from his position in June 2019, the three agencies started talking about the future of the association.
“We took a step back to take a look at where we were at and where we’re going,” Ripp said. “When Paul decided (to step down), we as a Port decided to take a direction that we knew we needed – hiring our own business development person. When we started that (process), we realized we don’t really need to have CWEDA.”
Ripp said that Jaeger will work closely with Camas’ economic development manager to stimulate further development, and that they’ll meet periodically with the cities’ mayors to provide updates and discuss ideas.
“I think that with where we’re at, we don’t need CWEDA in its public entity sense. It will become something else,” Ripp said. “We’ll continue to have update meetings. We know we’ll continue to work together in that aspect, but not as a public entity. It won’t be called CWEDA anymore, but that group of people will keep it fresh and keep everybody informed about what’s going on in the community.”
“We know the partnerships that we have with both cities are very important,” he continued. “Those partnerships will never end. I feel very blessed and very fortunate that we have those relationships.”
At the city of Washougal’s Dec. 2 workshop, Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said the termination of CWEDA represents a good opportunity for that city “to develop some new and different strategies for creating economic development in (the Washougal) community.”
“I think a key message is the mutual interest in cooperative economic development between the two cities and the Port is not diminished. It stays right where it’s at,” Washougal City Administrator David Scott said at the Dec. 2 workshop. “Notwithstanding the financial dynamic that the Port has brought to the table, there’s a continued bullish interagency desire to cooperate around economic development. It’s just going to take a different form. We’re closing that chapter of our economic development partnership, setting the stage for the next chapter.”
Before that happens, however, CWEDA will deal with the findings of a financial audit, currently being done by the Washington State Auditor’s Office (WSAO). Ripp said that the report, which he expects to receive by the end of January, could find fault in the way CWEDA was structured in its early years.
“When we started CWEDA, we were told by our legal team that it wasn’t a public entity,” he said. “Then the Port went through an audit in 2017, and the (WSAO) saw CWEDA and said, ‘Do you realize this is all under this category?’ We were like, “OK, it is a public entity.’”
“It had been acting like a public entity when it came to how the meetings were run,” he continued. “Members of the public were invited, and when we had to go into executive session, we followed those rules. But we weren’t stringent on everything, like sending out meeting notices and approving minutes and financial statements. Once we realized CWEDA had to follow the same guidelines as the cities and the Port, we made the changes immediately.”
Ripp said the audit had no impact on the decision to terminate CWEDA.
“It has nothing to do with it,” he said. “We started talking about CWEDA after Paul stepped down, which was before we were notified of the audit. CWEDA will officially terminate in June, but we need to cover any expenses up until then. One of those expenses is our audit, and we’ll pay for that.”