By CREDC President, Mike Bomar
I recently read a book called Town, Inc. (thank you Betsy Henning) that explored the value of focusing in on being great at one thing in a community. In essence, the recommendation is to become the “worldwide capital of x.” Afterwards, I thought a lot about what makes up our community: the history, culture, key events, people, and place. While I think being a diverse economy with a wide range of key industries has certainly provided us resiliency and depth, I do think it’s worth considering where we might be able to stand out and further define who we are on a global scale. It also may be one of the places where local economic development professionals can have the most direct impact on economic outcomes.
One error that can be made by EcDev professionals is to look at a significant investment (new company or capital improvement) and respond as if it represents a much broader opportunity than it truly does in that moment in time. To avoid this mistake, it’s important to look at the fundamentals of what makes a strong economy and to take a realistic look at what strengths (and shortcomings) a community has. While strategies have changed recently, I believe these fundamentals have remained relatively static for some time.
While often taken for granted, geographic location is often the largest determinant of what an economy looks like in a given area. This can be defined both in broader geographic terms (ie: gateway to the Pacific, United States, Pacific Northwest), and by a community’s proximity to other metro areas (urban, suburban, rural). Our community is set up well for global trade and regional distribution. The nature of our place has led to many investments in rail, road, river & runway to move products and people to and through the region.
The natural and urban amenities of the area also play a key role. The Vancouver-Portland Metro area is a very attractive place for active people as well as nature lovers with close proximity to an ocean, mountains, lakes and rivers. Our temperate climate also helps define what we do here and who is attracted to the area. Place alone, however, cannot sustain a thriving economy.
While most communities claim to have “good people,” what this really means in economic development is the right type of skill sets and general understanding of an industry throughout the population. Scaling up a workforce from scratch is a very difficult thing to do, even with increased mobility of employees over time.
World War II and the Kaiser Shipyards brought a massive influx of steel workers, electricians, and other professionals, many from families that remain in the community. Since then, the manufacturing sector has benefited from the people who know how to build world-class products. Again, up to the 80’s and early 90’s, the region saw growth related to the Silicon Forest investments in the region. We currently enjoy a strong presence of high-tech skilled workers that is appealing to additional tech investment.
There are many other stories that have helped define the workforce we enjoy today in Clark County. Talent attraction is important, but employers need to see an existing workforce that will help them be successful.
Education is the very foundation of economic development. Clark County has the benefit of a Tier 1 research institution in WSU Vancouver and a nationally recognized community college. In our community, however, a commitment to education goes beyond these great institutions and is felt throughout the K-12 system and other non-traditional education providers. The interweaving of our local economy and the education system, while there is more work to be done, is an attractive atmosphere for employers looking to invest in a long-term location. Success with education is about connections and cultures as much as it about the specific degrees and programs we offer.
Tax and Regulatory Environment
Washington state is not known as an incentive-driven state, and I’m more than okay with that. What we do have is a favorable tax structure and in Clark County, business-friendly local governments that understand the important role job creation plays in the overall quality of life we enjoy. Historical advantages such as low-cost, reliable energy will continue to play an important role in business attraction and retention. Data infrastructure and pricing will play an increasingly important role for business.
Vision and Team
It’s not enough to have the ingredients for success. Becoming known as a worldwide leader takes a group of committed and thoughtful people willing to put in the time and resources to make it happen. We have a committed and involved group of leaders that provide us with the opportunity to make meaningful progress toward being a globally known community.
The Small Animal Health Capital of the World?
Recently, new investments and projects in our community have led us to wonder about Clark County’s potential to be the “Small Animal Health Capital of the World.” While there’s a lot of exploration left to do before we direct resources down that path, there are some interesting linkages across the fundamentals that could bode well for our area’s place in that industry (and my dog’s well-being).
Southwest Washington is already known as a pet-loving community. The growing abundance of dog parks and the strong support for the Humane Society point to a community that cares about its pets. There is also a strong presence of health care professionals and experts in the region, as well as companies that focus on health care products and services. The opening of Banfield Pet Hospital’s headquarters in East Vancouver will likely have the largest immediate impact on our area’s reputation as a pet-lover’s paradise. Beyond the obvious corporate presence and community affinity for furry little friends, we have more to offer to the future of animal health.
In education, we have connections to the life sciences from K-12 through higher ed. While most of the focus is currently on human health, many of the applications could also be tailored toward animal health. Companies in life sciences also work across both fields. WSU has a world-class vet med program in Pullman. It’s likely that the expertise and resources of the broader system will be able to support a stronger presence of animal health research and education here in Vancouver. As research & development is critical to this industry, support from state and local governments will be necessary for both educational institutions and industry partners.
Partners with a strong vision for life sciences and health are also present. The Port of Vancouver’s Columbia River Life Sciences Park will provide initial space and an ongoing presence of life sciences firms at the new waterfront. There have also been key investments in data infrastructure that is becoming increasingly important in the life sciences sector (think genomics).
While we are a ways out from making the claim that we are the “Small Animal Health Capital of the World,” enough ingredients are there to justify taking a hard look at how Clark County could soon be synonymous with pet care. Stay tuned!