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Report: Jobs are shifting to the roomy suburbs

Land, policies fuel increases in Washington, Clackamas counties
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT High tech manufacturing companies like SolarWorld are boosting employment in Washington County.

Washington County continues to challenge Multnomah County as the economic engine of the state, according to an analysis by the Westside Economic Alliance.

The analysis released last week found that Multnomah County lost jobs during the past 10 years, while Washington and Clackamas counties added them. According to the analysis of Oregon Employment Division figures, Multnomah County lost 31,915 jobs between 2000 and 2010. In contrast, Washington County added 10,650 jobs and Clackamas County added 3,723 jobs during the same 10 years.

The Westside Economic Alliance represents employers in Washington and western Clackamas counties. The analysis was presented at the group's Aug. 24 board meeting.

Much of Washington County's success can be attributed to the aggressive recruitment of high-tech businesses such as Intel and SolarWorld that have manufacturing plants in and around Hillsboro, according to alliance Executive Director Jonathan Schlueter. Housing costs are also lower in Washington County than Multnomah County, Schlueter says, which attracts young families.

'Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools in Washington County has outpaced Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill and Columbia County districts combined, and by a multiple of nearly threefold since 1998,' Schlueter says.

Washington County officials continue to aggressively push for more jobs and homes. They recently worked with Metro, the regional government, to convince the state Land Conservation and Development Commission to designate 13,525 acres of undeveloped land for future growth. Known as urban reserve acres, they include 310 acres for additional industrial development in Hillsboro.

By contrast, Portland, which dominates Multnomah County, did not have a strategic economic development plan until two years ago. Mayor Sam Adams pushed the City Council to adopt a plan targeting specific industries with the most potential for growth in July 2009. They include those specializing in sustainable development and sportswear.

Adams credits the plan with helping the city add more than 1,900 jobs and retain more than 1,000 more since it was adopted.

'The results are early, but the early results are positive - and they reaffirm the opportunities ahead and what is possible,' Adams said in a July 2011 report to the council.

Land for jobs

The Westside Economic Alliance analysis mirrors a study released last year by the Portland Business Alliance on the regional economy. The PBA study, 'A Check-up on the Portland-Region's Economic Health,' found that Multnomah County lost 26,463 private sector jobs between 1997 and 2009. In contrast, Washington County added 21,100 private sector jobs and Clackamas County added 13,657 private sector jobs during that time.

Despite Portland's two-year-old economic development plan, it is unclear whether Multnomah County is prepared to compete against Washington County or even Clackamas County for new jobs. Multnomah County only asked LCDC to designate 857 acres as urban reserves. All of them are east of Gresham. In contrast, LCDC designated 13,874 acres as urban reserves in Clackamas County.

Metro will not decide whether to expand the Urban Growth Boundary it administers to allow development on any of the newly designated urban reserves until later this year.

One reason Multnomah County requested so few urban reserve acres is that it is already much more developed land than either Washington and Clackamas counties. Development officials believe new employers can reuse existing commercial, industrial and retail properties.

However, some of the land is contaminated by previous occupants and must be cleaned up before it can be redeveloped. That includes land in Portland, where officials are still trying to figure out how to meet the city's growth needs.

Portland has been working on an analysis of available employment land for years, but it isn't completed. This week, the council extended the contract for the economic consulting firm working on the analysis. E.D. Hovee and Co. has worked since early 2009 to update the city's Economic Opportunities Analysis. The LCDC requires the analysis to be completed before the council approves new policies that potentially affect the availability of land for employment. The council gave the firm an additional $30,000 on Wednesday (CONFIRM) to extend its work into the fall.

Median income also up

Regional business growth trends have actually been going on for the past 30 years. According to the Westside Economic Alliance analysis, since 1980, 140,392 jobs have been created in Washington County compared to 86,573 in Multnomah County and 74,677 in Clackamas County.

Jobs have only declined in Multnomah County in the past 10 years, a period marked by two deep recessions. As of July, Washington County had the lowest unemployment rate, 7.7 percent compared to 8.6 percent in both Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

Despite the ongoing economic problems, Washington County added 2,100 jobs and Multnomah County added 1,400 jobs during the past 12 months. Clackamas County lost 900 jobs during the past year, however, according to the employment division.

The WEA analysis also included new U.S. Census figures showing that the median household income in Washington County was $60,963 in 2009. That compares to $59,876 in Clackamas County and $50,733 in Multnomah County.

All three counties are above the statewide median household income of $48,457.

Multnomah County is still the regional population center, however, with 735,334 residents in April 2010 compared to 529,710 in Washington County and 375,992 in Clackamas County.