It used to be that once a company put down roots in a town, they
were there for good. The city leaders who landed the “big fish” went out
looking for their next catch. After all, what company president would walk
away from a multi-million dollar facility?
Times have changed. In the good old days, land and buildings were
a big part of a company’s investment. Today, many
companies spend the bulk of their costs on
sophisticated computerized machinery that gets replaced
every five years or so with newer, faster models.
In the good old days, generations of folks in
southwest Washington worked at the Pendleton woolen mill, the
Crown Zellerbach (now Fort James) pulp and paper plant or the Alcoa (now
Vanalco) aluminum smelter. Workers stayed there until they retired or quit.
Today, high-tech companies like SEH-America, Hewlett-Packard,
Linear Technology, Wafertech, Sharp and Kyocera are more mobile. They
attract engineers, technicians and skilled workers from around the country
and are now the major employers in Vancouver.
State and local officials needs to keep that mobility in mind as
they wrestle with how to respond to Initiative 695.
For example, Vancouver and southwestern Washington could
easily lose some of these high-tech companies if the state revokes the sales
tax exemption on manufacturing machinery, equipment, replacement parts,
and research and development. The added cost to retool or expand could
force those companies to relocate out-of-state.
Another example: Recently, the City of Vancouver imposed a
building moratorium in the east county – where many of these
manufacturers are located – because I-695
eliminated money for a highway interchange at State
Route 14 and 192nd Avenue. The City lost the money, so to avoid
adding to congestion, the City Council passed the moratorium.
The moratorium not only prevents these businesses from expanding,
it also hurts their ability to attract engineers and technicians, because it
puts an end to new home construction.
To remain successful, businesses must be able to attract skilled
workers and respond quickly to changes in today’s highly competitive global
Progressive state and local officials must also keep pace with
those changes. If they drag their feet or are complacent, the businesses
they worked so hard to attract will move to places where they have a better
chance to grow and compete.
While it may be difficult to imagine a company walking away from
a multi-million dollar plant, it can happen. That’s not a threat, it’s just a
fact of life.