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Originally published Sunday, February 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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State's hot 5 job spots

Legacy Health Systems of Portland reached across the Columbia River to open a new hospital in 2005 because Vancouver and surrounding Clark...

Seattle Times business reporter

VANCOUVER — Legacy Health Systems of Portland reached across the Columbia River to open a new hospital in 2005 because Vancouver and surrounding Clark County seemed ripe for expansion. New residents had been streaming into the area for years, and the county was outgrowing its one major hospital.

"From an economic point of view we knew there was a demand there we could fill," said Pamela Vukovich, Legacy's chief financial officer.

It has proven to be as much a jobs engine as a care provider. Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital has created 569 full-time positions — more than 400 filled by Washington residents — and sparked development of clinics, medical offices and other service businesses nearby.

Health care, in fact, is one of Clark County's fastest-growing industries. And during the current economic expansion, Clark County has been by far Washington state's fastest-growing urban area — adding jobs at a much-faster rate than the four-county central Puget Sound region.

Clark is one of five "hot spots" that have led the state in job growth during the current expansion, according to an analysis of state data by The Seattle Times. That's a sharp departure from the giddy dot-com and telecom boom of the late 1990s, when the state's biggest metropolitan area created new jobs faster than nearly all other regions.

Clark County

Fastest growth rate in state at 16% and plenty of developable land

Whatcom County

Growth driven by retirees, older workers looking to relax

Skagit County

Some spillover from Seattle and a healthy boat-building industry

Wenatchee

Influx of retirees with money and an increase in food processing

Spokane

Construction boom across Idaho border giving a big boost

Not that King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties are exactly slacking off. The four-county central Puget Sound area accounted for three of every five jobs created from the bottom of the statewide recession in April 2003 to the end of 2006 — a 9.6 percent gain overall. The state average gain is also 9.6 percent.

But the five hot spots posted more impressive growth rates — from 10.5 percent in Spokane County to 16 percent in Clark. Whatcom and Skagit counties and the Wenatchee area (comprising Chelan and Douglas counties) round out the Hot Five.

They share some common characteristics. Most rode out the recession with relatively few job losses. Residential construction is a big jobs generator almost everywhere. None has a single employer with such outsized influence on the local economy as Boeing has in Puget Sound. Overall wage levels are below the statewide median. And each has a smaller base of jobs than the four-county area around Seattle, making it easier to rack up big percentage gains.

Job growth and population growth often reinforce each other. People looking for work tend to gravitate to where jobs are being created. And as an area's population grows, it needs more in the way of services and amenities — more houses, bigger stores, nicer restaurants — that in turn generate even more jobs.

However, fast growth can have a downside: People who fill newly created jobs in historically lower-paying fields such as retail, restaurants and tourism can quickly find themselves priced out of their community. If the newly hot spots stay hot, they'll likely have to wrestle with affordability issues that up to now have been mainly the Seattle area's concern.

CLARK COUNTY

For years, the Vancouver area has been dismissed as hip, eco-urban Portland's dowdy sibling — the repository for all the development that couldn't be contained within Portland's tight urban-growth boundary. Local officials have sought to turn that distinction to the county's advantage.

"Clark County is still filling up, and there's lots of developable land," said Scott Bailey, the state Employment Security Department's regional labor economist for Southwest Washington. "The land-use plans have continually allowed for as much residential development as we could take. It's been 'Come on in, homebuilders.' "

Now, Bailey said, the county's population has grown enough that it can support a level of retail and services that once could only be found across the Interstate Bridge — though Oregon's siren call of tax-free shopping continues to beckon.

People who bought into the stacks of newly built homes across from Legacy Salmon Creek, for instance, can now shop at a new Best Buy store a few miles down Interstate 5. (Clark County has added 2,400 retail jobs during the current boom.)

"Now we're getting all the stores Portland has, only ours are all brand-new," said Gretchen Amacher, manager of Legacy's Family Birth Center.

One industry that helped fuel growth in the late 1990s, semiconductor manufacturing, isn't much of a factor this time around. Chipmakers shrank or closed several of the newly built plants during the recession. Employment in computer and electronics manufacturing shrank from 5,300 at the end of 2000 to 3,000 at the depth of the recession, and the sector has added just 500 jobs since then.

WHATCOM COUNTY

The longtime economic mainstays of Bellingham and Whatcom — the oil refineries and Western Washington University — aren't behind the latest growth surge there, said Hart Hodges, director of WWU's Center for Economic and Business Research.

Rather, much of the area's growth is being driven by retirees and late-career workers, who are trading in their big-city lives for a more relaxed yet sophisticated lifestyle. Between 1995 and 2005, according to Hodges, Whatcom's population of people in their 50s grew by nearly 80 percent; the 60-and-over group grew by 25 percent.

"Some of them come with jobs — they're telecommuting or consulting for their old companies," Hodges said. Those folks helped boost the ranks of "professional and business services" workers, a category that added 1,500 jobs between April 2003 and December 2006.

Building homes for all those new residents also has boosted the local economy. In the Cordata area of north Bellingham, for instance, 452 houses and apartments have been built since the beginning of 2003.

Construction generated close to 1,800 jobs in the county during the current boom. Those jobs paid a median wage of $18.82 an hour in 2005 (the most recent year for which data is available), a third more than the median wage for all jobs in Whatcom County.

The county's unemployment rate, once consistently higher than the statewide average, now is consistently lower.

But Hodges noted a cloud on Whatcom's horizon: People in their prime working years are leaving. Between 1995 and 2005, he said, the only age group to decline in Whatcom County was people in their 30s.

SKAGIT COUNTY

Skagit County has been one of the state's hidden success stories for a long time. Since 1991, according to state figures, nonfarm payroll jobs in Skagit have grown faster than the statewide average in all but two years.

Spillover from the greater Seattle area is part of the reason, state regional labor economist Jim Vleming said: "When things got real expensive in King and Snohomish, I think you saw a lot of people take the next step up and look at Skagit County. Even with gas at $2.50 a gallon and up, we're seeing a fair number of commuters that we didn't see 10 or 20 years ago."

Even if those new residents work at Boeing's Everett plant or at a Bothell biotech, the paychecks they bring home have helped fuel the construction and retail industries — both of which have added about 1,100 Skagit County jobs since the recession's bottom in April 2003.

The Anacortes area also has seen a mini-boom in the business of building and repairing boats. Some smaller outfits concentrate on fishing boats and pleasure craft, Vleming said, while larger ones are doing work for the Navy and Coast Guard. Together, they've helped add 600 manufacturing jobs to the county's relatively small job base during the current expansion.

Cap Sante Marine, for instance, has added at least eight full-time workers to its core repair and maintenance business, co-owner Dianna Chonka said, bringing the total payroll to 50. The jobs pay well — a journeyman boat technician can make close to $50,000 a year, plus benefits — and the workers are in high demand.

"We can't have enough techs," Chonka said. "You don't want to tick off your techs, because if he decides he doesn't want to work for you there are five other people lined up who'll hire him."

WENATCHEE

You can think of the Wenatchee area as a place that exports apples and imports people — especially retirees.

"There are a lot of people coming from Seattle and other places with their own money," said Don Meseck, state regional labor economist for Central Washington.

Since the 2000 census, Chelan and Douglas counties together have grown by nearly 6,600 people, or 6.6 percent. But the number of people aged 60 or over in the two counties has grown by 14.5 percent.

Building housing for those new residents has helped the Wenatchee area get over a dip in its "core" industry — agriculture.

After adding 1,580 jobs in 2004 and 2005, the region's farms and orchards cut 460 jobs last year; Meseck attributed much of that drop to bad weather that cut into the apple crop.

The construction sector, by contrast, added close to 300 jobs last year.

The houses are getting pricier: According to the North Central Washington Association of Realtors, the average selling price last year was up 15 percent to $239,574.

Manufacturing also has been adding jobs — 600 during the current recovery, for a 30 percent gain, making it the Wenatchee area's leading growth sector.

Those gains haven't come at the giant Alcoa aluminum smelter outside Wenatchee. That plant — one of just two active smelters remaining from the state's once-thriving aluminum industry — has stayed at close to 400 workers since reopening in December 2004.

Rather, Meseck said, "the real action in the manufacturing sector is food processing." Though bad weather and a tight labor market last year cut the number of fresh-packed apples, processed apples rose by 7.7 percent from 2005 to 2006.

SPOKANE

Like a transport ship being led by a tiny but powerful tugboat, greater Spokane's current prosperity is due in large part to the torrid growth of its smaller neighbor — Kootenai County, Idaho.

"The construction boom in Kootenai County has been nothing short of amazing," said Patrick Jones, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University.

As the biggest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, Spokane has long been the retail and services center for a vast region. Now, it's supplying construction workers and materials for the spread of housing developments across Idaho's Rathdrum Prairie, as well as workers for newly sprouted shops and clinics.

Manufacturing, from Boeing suppliers to Itronix, a maker of "ruggedized" laptop computers, also has rebounded. The once-mighty aluminum industry has shrunk but, to the surprise of many, not disappeared completely — Kaiser Aluminum's Trentwood rolling mill still employs 700 people.

Jones also pointed to Inland Northwest Health Services, a joint venture of four hospitals that manages a database of 2.6 million patient records for 38 agencies throughout the West.

"IT over here — it's not Microsoft, but it's focused on health, which has always been one of Spokane's strong points," he said.

It's impossible to say, of course, whether these five hot spots will continue to burn more brightly than the Seattle area. Job growth in central Puget Sound has picked up steam recently, and Washington state is replete with former boom towns that have gone bust.

But Jones, for one, thinks the changes will be long-lasting.

"There was a time back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when some people in Seattle may have been looking for less growth, while a place like Spokane was doing a lot of soul-searching and asking 'What can we do better?' " he said.

"Now, I think those places are seeing the fruits of their labor to reinvent themselves."

Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or ddesilver@seattletimes.com

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