In 1983, city leaders in this southwest Washington town decided to wean their community from the faltering timber economy, and to focus on companies in the growing computer-technology business.
“We were painfully aware of having our eggs in one basket,” says former Mayor Nan Henriksen.
Three baskets, actually. Clark County has a long history of dependence on forestry, farming and the aluminum industry.
But the high-tech vision was radical.
“Many people thought that we were high on drugs, or at least not very realistic,” Henriksen said, recalling early reaction to diversification plans from the Columbia River Economic Development Council formed by local leaders.
But they were just ahead of their time with their vision of attracting U.S. and foreign high-tech companies.
More than 7,000 people now work in high-tech industry jobs in Clark County, and its 4.1 percent jobless rate is well below the state average.
“I’m very, very happy that the naysayers were wrong,” Henriksen said. “This is a Cinderella story for a small town.”
In the past decade, Clark County’s efforts have brought in Hewlett Packard’s Desk Jet printer headquarters, with 2,700 employees; SEH America’s silicon wafer plant, 1,400 workers and plans to add 600; AVX, a ceramic-materials division of Kyocera with 600 employees and plans to add 300; Sharp Microelectronics Technology’s liquid-crystal-display plant with 600 workers and plans to add 300; America Kotobuki Electronics, with 350 people making TV and VCR components; and Linear Technology’s semi-conductor wafer plant, expected to employ 300 when it opens.
These days, Camas is waiting to learn whether Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. will build a new 800-worker plant here or in Gresham, Ore., across the Columbia River. The company wants its first overseas plant on the West Coast, for proximity to Taiwan.
The $1.2 billion plant - a joint venture with San Jose, Calif.-based chip-maker Altera Corp. - would produce 300,000 8-inch silicon wafers each month. The wafers are used to make semiconductor chips.
Clark County’s attractions, for this company and the others, include relatively cheap land, plentiful clean water, a branch campus of Washington State University, a skilled work force and high-tech neighbors.
The Columbia River Economic Development Council was formed in the early 1980s, as Camas waited to learn whether Crown Zellerbach would close its local pulp mill, which employed 2,500 people. Alcoa’s plant had closed, though it reopened later under new ownership. Unemployment was 12.6 percent.
The county’s diversification plan included annexation of local farmland for a high-tech industrial park financed by the state.
And officials began recruiting in Oregon, suggesting executives consider Clark County.
The effort “created tremendous friction,” recalled Robert Levin, current council president. “But it was effective and said Clark County was going to become a player.”
Oregon calls the effort “cherry-picking” and feels Clark County benefited from its successful efforts to attract high-tech businesses to the “Silicon Forest.”
Clark County officials concede the benefits of their proximity to Portland. But the federal government had a role, too. Without the construction of Interstate 205 in 1982, offering quick access to Portland and its international airport, there would be no big industrial development.
And there are benefits this side of the river: Washington has lower taxes overall, a lower unemployment tax and no personal income tax.
Oregon offers tax incentives of its own. In 1994, the Oregon Legislature approved a law that gives counties authority to cap property values at $100 million, with values beyond the limit untaxable.
Washington state’s lawmakers last year approved a law that exempts new manufacturing equipment or machinery from sales tax - a measure that offers tremendous savings to capital-intensive semiconductor companies. It helped prompt SEH America’s decision to proceed with a $710 million expansion in Clark County that will add 600 jobs.
Now the county is facing predictable conflicts between natives and newcomers, rural lifestyle and urban creep.
“The jury’s still out on whether we can manage the growth and not sacrifice the quality of life,” said Joe King, former speaker of the state House and a county resident.