PROFILE: Paul Dennis; His View of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association

September 13, 2011

by Martha Martin


Paul Dennis, President & CEO of CWEDA --photo Martha Martin

Earlier this summer, the Port of Camas-Washougal and the cities of Camas and Washougal entered into a joint economic development agreement, forming a legal entity called Camas Washougal Economic Development Association, or CWEDA.  Former Camas Mayor, Paul Dennis, was chosen as Executive Director of CWEDA.  In August, Mr. Dennis agreed to an interview for the Silver Star Reporter.

As Paul Dennis sat comfortably in his new office located on the second floor of Wes Hickey’s Washougal Town Square building, he talked about his history, his new position as the Executive Director of the Camas Washougal Economic Development Association, and what he sees for Camas and Washougal.

Cascade Planning is born 

Paul Dennis earned his B.A. in Economics from Western Washington University. He began working for E.D. Hovee & Company in 1990, briefly working for another consultant in 1997, and then returning to E.D. Hovee in 1998. 

When asked how Cascade Planning, the company that was awarded the professional contract by the Port of Camas-Washougal, got started, Dennis said that Cascade Planning Group was formed in May of 2003, with a focus on planning and development.  He had been working with consultants who had started or created companies, and were at points in their careers where they wanted to work on their own pet projects.  Dennis, on the other hand, said he was “at an age” where he wanted to start his career, and was interested in starting his own company.  “You know, you can’t do it later in life, so I decided to start my own company”.

Dennis entered into a professional agreement with E.D. Hovee and Company, agreeing to not compete with each other for their current clients. To him it made sense to work with them, leveraging each other’s names, and working with their clients together. The non-compete agreement disappeared after 5 years, but they still worked “hand in hand”.

Dennis brought his portfolio of projects to newly formed Cascade Planning, and Samsung Electronics was one of these clients.  In the late 1990’s, Dennis assisted Samsung in locating a site for their US manufacturing plant.  The choices came down to Portland and Austin, with the final choice being Austin.

Dennis cited several projects that his company worked on, such as the housing plan for the Portland Pearl District, a 16 block financial model for the Portland Development Commission, and what used to be called Regional Strategies which was the program that took Oregon Lottery dollars and put them toward economic development.  Other projects included reviewing Oregon legislation for the bottle tax in Oregon, and Washington legislation regarding the benefit and expansion of Empowerment Zones, a program that helps qualifying communities to increase economic, physical, or social activity.

Public Schools and Planning 

Dennis described his public finance or facility planning experience which started with local school districts, as well as Seattle and Tri-Cities districts.  He assisted with changes in land use, economy, or demographics, and how each of these affects the need for additional or non-traditional facilities.  His perspective is that growth does not necessarily mean pressure on school systems, and it helps to have a better understanding of the “underlying dynamics that are occurring in the socioeconomics of the community”.

School boundaries can be an issue for growing communities, and Dennis said he has experience with land planning and devising sensible boundaries that do not require constant revising every year.  He recalled some “battles” with parents in some districts where “they threatened to lynch me, literally.”  It’s an emotional time for parents when their children are forced to relocate to another school.  With each project that he worked through, Dennis saw that he had gotten smarter.

Dennis described his experience as “running the whole gambit of both federal, state, and local policy, as well as private economic development projects”, and when he includes his public sector experience as council member and as Mayor of Camas, he sees his background as “well rounded”. 

Convincing the interview panel

Asked how he feels about his new job, Dennis said he is very excited. And what was his interview process like for this job?  During his interview for his new position as president and CEO of CWEDA, he focused on selling the community.  He pretended the interview panel was a client.  He emphasized his experience, the trust he has with various property owners in the public sector, and his ability to contact them and say “Hey, I’ve got a company who wants to relocate”, and then connecting clients to their needs, assisting them with concerns or “barriers”, and utilizing his contacts and relationships.

Dennis believes there are opportunities for both Camas and Washougal, and during his interview, emphasized this point.  He told them that “it’s not a Washougal vs. Camas” issue.  “If you look at the key assets that exist throughout East Clark County, together we can compete with anybody.”  He stressed that working together is the best strategy.

CWEDA or Cascade Planning 

How does Dennis keep his own business separate from his new position as CWEDA Executive Director?  He has already set up clear boundaries with the CWEDA board that spell out his intention to continue to serve his current long-standing clients, and he will inform the board of any separate projects.  One example of this is the financial report for the Columbia River Economic Development Council regarding the Yakima Bears relocating to Vancouver, which he stated is now completed.

One client in particular Dennis wants to maintain.  He said this client is “raising money for public sector major infrastructure projects like the viaduct, or the 520 bridge in Seattle”.  Dennis said this client has some interest in obtaining foreign investment into the I-5 project, and this client travels to Asia to raise money by buying government bonds at below market rates.  He and this client have a very good relationship, so he wishes to make sure he keeps him.

Dennis described how he will prevent any perception of impropriety.  If someone comes to him as CWEDA Director and they are unable to find what they need in this area, he will not then work for them as Cascade Planning, or vice versa.  He will make referrals to those he trusts in the industry.  He emphasized that he would never “double bill”, and that he is “off the payroll” to CWEDA when he does his own consulting work.  His goal is to avoid any cross over between CWEDA and his own business.

Asked how to pronounce the new acronym CWEDA, Dennis says it can be pronounced either way; Kwee-da or Swee-da, but that in Camas, maybe the hard “k” sound is appropriate.  He admitted that this is just his way of adding a bit of humor. 

Local Assets 

Dennis listed local assets as the Port Industrial Park, the 120 plus acres at Steigerwald Commerce Center, the improvements to State Route 14, and the waterfront area near the Port which Dennis says has a planning grant.

He mentioned Grove Field airport as a key asset “if it’s done right”.  He sees it as limited because of the topography and with limits to access when there is heavy rain and cloud cover.  His thought is that if it “was pushed to the East a little bit more, you probably could expand it.”  He added that the community needs to be conscientious about how expansion occurs, and what the airport’s overall purpose actually is.

Other local assets, according to Dennis, are the Green Mountain Golf Course, and the corporate center located nearby, with businesses  such as Sharp, UL, Bodycote, and others.   He sees this area as being quite profitable and economically healthy.

Dennis mentioned Parkers Landing National Historic Site as an important asset, and one that should be “hands off”. He agreed with the community and Port support of this site being dedicated a national historic site. Related to this, Dennis mentioned the RiverWalk project as one that was a good concept with a bad process.  He noted that a battle started that could not be won, and that future projects must include an improved process.

Dennis described Wes Hickey, developer and owner of Washougal Town Square, as a key asset to the community.  He said that Wes is “patient”, and that not a lot of private sector investors would be as patient.

Asked if he was purposeful in picking Washougal Town Square for the location of his office, Dennis said it was both purposeful and strategic.  His intention was to let Washougal know that “just because I invested 14 almost 15 years in Camas, doesn’t mean I’m not willing to invest time here, that I don’t believe in Washougal, which is quite the contrary.”

Barriers to Business 

Dennis named local funding sources as one major barrier to start-up businesses.   He would like to “develop an executive team of business professionals that can look at start-ups” and “be able to develop some type of community investment fund, whether it’s county wide, or just for East Clark County.”  According to Dennis, there are venture capitalists and angel investors in this area that could be convinced to look at local projects and make investments.  He sees making local investments as an advantage; one that takes into consideration the attractiveness of our two communities.

For Camas and Washougal to compete globally, Dennis stated they will have to get as creative as other countries, such as China. China invests directly in their businesses.  The state of Washington cannot lend credit, as do other states such as Tennessee or Texas, who invest government dollars directly in business.  One thing government can do here is “not get in the way”.  He described the investment that Camas made in the “streetscape” in downtown as a way that local government can instill confidence in local business owners, and “get out of their way”.

Dennis is concerned about requirements for equity lending.  Banks are requiring large amounts down, such as a third or more, before they will lend to a business.  According to Dennis, banks are even reluctant with businesses that have lease agreements that are “100% pre-leased”.  When asked what might make banks change their lending process, he stated that “if politicians were, I’ll say it, if politicians were smart, they would just deal with it, come to some agreement and deal with it swiftly, equitably, and just get on with it.  The more that that problems lingers on, the less confidence the market place has.”

You can read Part 2 of Paul Dennis’s interview next week, where Paul discusses how CWEDA will be marketed, plans for job retention, and what’s in the future for Camas and Washougal.

Click Here to read part 2 of our profile.