Wednesday, December 23, 2009

► On the Record

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

-- John Lennon (1940-1980)

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Looking beyond the Holidays

They’ve been welcomed like victorious Allied soldiers liberating a small French village this holiday season, with the “thwack” of cash registers and door chimes jingling in adulation.

Yes, I’m talking about the American shopping public, the insatiable force behind an increasingly integrated worldwide economy brought to a standstill, in large part, when they decided to stay home last year.

But now they’re back – at least for now.

Though undeniably a boon for shopping centers, boutiques and the U.S. Postal Service this holiday, the question of what reinvigorated shoppers might do once the tinsel is packed away, remains unanswered.

Just ask any local retailer about the future beyond the New Year, and you’re likely to get a blank stare, a short laugh or a reply like Westfield Vancouver Mall general manager Connie Stankivicz’s: “Let’s talk when this is all over.”

The worst thing about an economic recession is that it tends to mire people in a difficult and exasperating present, with the focus not on next year, next month, or next week. For some, making it through a single day is enough.

But there is still much to be thankful for this holiday season. If nothing else, the thousands of shoppers returning in force is indicative of an almost-miraculous optimism by Southwest Washingtonians facing down double-digit unemployment, falling home values and tightening lines of credit.

Maybe it’s just gratefulness, or relief that the promised financial apocalypse did not come to pass. Instead, many of us are still here, with more than a few bucks to spare.

And some of us are bound and determined to spend it.

Happy Holidays from the VBJ

Happy holiday wishes to you, your family and friends, from all of us at the VBJ.

Just Business will next appear Wednesday, Jan. 6.

See you next year!

Business around the Northwest

Retailer plans to set a beading record Saturday, South Shore Business Examiner

Video, music stores rocked by change, Spokane Business Journal

Wal-Mart to build new Portland store
, Portland Business Journal

Friday, December 18, 2009

► On the Record

“If she thinks this is going to provide badly-needed revenue for the state, she is sadly mistaken.”

-- David Montei, owner of Richey’s Tire Factory in Vancouver, on state Rep. Deb Wallace’s recent proposal to eliminate sales-tax exemptions for out-of-state residents.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Of Smartphones and sanity

‘Tis the season for tinsel, for impromptu smooching underneath the mistletoe, and in my case, the annual barrage of emails, texts and calls from my wireless provider, begging me to upgrade my antiquated flip-phone to a flashier, Web-enabled model.

Call me Luddite. Call me cheap (you wouldn’t be the first): I will not get a Smartphone.

Like many Just Business readers, I find myself caught in the middle of a delicate high-wire balancing act between the competing pressures of work and home, with a blurry vision of peaceful retreat becoming more and more a mirage on the horizon.

So being able to check my email, Facebook profile or Twitter feed anytime, anywhere might be just the thing that sends me over the edge – to a career in public relations perhaps, or government, where Blackberrys are as much an appendage as a suit-and-tie at a GOP fundraiser.

It’s a struggle I’ve been hearing a lot about recently, from professionals looking for guidance about returning an urgent work email, call or text during a family dinner to the small businessman burnt-out from being in constant contact with clients, employees or investors.

There’s no doubt: business is a 24/7 proposition. There is a market open somewhere on the globe every minute of almost every day. The recent financial crisis reminded many investors about what can happen in the span between Sunday night and Monday morning in terms of life-savings lost, careers ended and businesses going under.

But it is still incumbent upon us as fathers, daughters or friends to connect occasionally with actual people – not just a glowing LCD screen.

So look down at your iPhone, your HTC Hero or Droid. Appreciate its design, its ease of use and its convenience. Now power it down.

Take a deep breath. Isn’t that better?

O.K., you can it turn it back on again.

That Facebook update, Tweet or email you just missed probably wasn’t that important, anyway.

Business around the Northwest

Study finds Idaho’s tax burden sixth lowest per capita, Idaho Business Journal

Oregon highways nation’s 22nd worst
, Portland Business Journal

Incomes up slightly
, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

► On the Record

“It seems like we're going to have pretty slow going for quite a while nationally, and that means pretty slow going in Southwest Washington.”

– Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Office.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Good banking by the bottle

In this year of economic tempest, with numbers reflecting massive job losses, shuttered businesses and depleted 401Ks, one figure rises above the rest: 133.

That’s the number of banks to fail this year as of Monday, according to numbers provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., with the latest casualty of the continuing financial meltdown a relatively-small Kansas savings-and-loan.

It’s the highest number in the history of the FDIC, the ubiquitous mother-of-all acronyms, once a complete afterthought, a peeling decal sticker on a teller’s booth – now the savior of capitalism as we know it, the garbage-man cleaning up the detritus of banks large and small.

There’s no doubt the economy is in desperate need for some good news. Lucky for us, a hint of what our President might call an “audacious” glimmer of hope came in the form of Monday’s opening of a Columbia Bank branch in downtown Vancouver, occurring on the same day as the 133rd U.S. bank failure of 2009.

Yes, in the midst of the bloated corpses of financial giants and the bony remains of small savings-and-loans, there are banks in this country that are expanding into new markets, fattening their deposits and writing new loans.

So what’s Columbia Bank’s secret? To get an answer, as is custom in my profession, I picked up the phone and made a call.

As opposed to calling say, Citi’s chief Vikram Pandit or departing Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis, both armed with taxpayer-funded phalanxes of public relations professionals, contacting Columbia Bank senior vice president Mark Brandon was relatively painless.

Brandon seemed in good spirits, excited about this week’s branch opening in the Angelo Building downtown, as well as the bank’s planned opening on the 27th Floor of Portland’s Fox Tower in March.

And the optimism on his part seems justified: the Tacoma-based bank’s expansion into Clark County has all the hallmarks of being a well-planned venture, with Brandon hiring longtime local bankers like Gordon Rodewald and Joan Cooper and a new branch located on what is increasingly known among local realtors and developers as Vancouver’s “bank row.”

But the planning for success in today’s economy began well before Clark County was even on Columbia Bank’s map. At the height of the housing boom, the financial institution’s exposure to residential real estate investments was 12 percent of its total assets, a figure that has since declined to 6 percent, according to Brandon.

So local people, a good location and a conservative take on risky investments… what exactly has Brandon been drinking? And how can we bottle some to pass out at board meetings, Federal Reserve conclaves and cabinet sessions?

I, for one, wouldn’t know. I’m still waiting for Vikram and Ken to return my calls.

Business around the Northwest

PR pros help businesses navigate muddy media waters, Bellingham Business Journal

Bank approves loan for long-stalled project
, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Portland economy shows little improvement, Portland Business Journal

Friday, December 11, 2009

► On the Record

“We will govern differently or we will not survive.”

– Republican Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt, after voting for a 1 percent property tax hike on Thursday. Boldt joined Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, to approve the increase, with the new funds mostly going to prevent further cuts at the county Sheriff’s Department.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

To the next Congressman, or woman

Love him, hate him or merely tolerate him: Brian Baird was – and still is, despite this week’s announcement of his retirement after 10 years in Congress – a man more practical than ideological.

Whether it is skepticism over healthcare reform, unfailing support of the military, or a fiscally-conservative voting record spread over six terms in the House of Representatives, Baird has been an almost-perfect mirror of the values shared by a clear majority of his constituents.

He’ll be a hard one to replace.

Nevertheless, the jockeying to fill his shoes in the 3rd District is well under way – especially on the right side of the aisle, with Olympia financial consultant David Castillo, Washougal City Councilman Jon Russell, YouTube healthcare town hall sensation David Hedrick, and perhaps, state Rep. Jaime Herrera all in the GOP mix.

Though it may be hard to predict who will emerge from what promises to be a tough primary next year, here’s some advice for any of Baird’s would-be successors:

Keep it about business and leave the partisan party politics alone.

While many might not agree with Baird’s votes on healthcare, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and this year’s economic stimulus package, there’s no doubt of his willingness to buck his own party to weigh the cost vs. benefit for his constituents.

And in regards to TARP, Baird displayed a true grit rare for a career politician, meeting earlier this year with business interests and ex-depositors after Bank of Clark County’s implosion, defending his decision to support the bailout in front of a tough audience.

It was at that meeting that Baird spoke, not as a member of the Democratic caucus, but as the region’s advocate in the halls of Congress.

Match that bipartisan spirit with David Castillo’s recent invective against the science behind climate change or David Hedrick’s Internet rant on healthcare reform, and the differences seem stark indeed.

Baird was reelected five times because he knew Southwest Washingtonians prefer practical solutions to party ideology every day of the week, twice Sundays.

Let that be a lesson for anyone, Republican and Democrat, looking to succeed him.

Business around the Northwest

SBA names new regional chief, Portland Business Journal

Recession raises unemployment tax rates, South Sound Business Examiner

Weak employment growth expected in early 2010, Bellingham Business Journal

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

► On the Record

“The message sent by increasing taxes in such tough times would be terrible – it would be like saying, ‘we know you’re struggling, but we’re going to ask for more taxes anyway.’”

– Mayor-elect Tim Leavitt, writing on his blog after voting against a 1 percent property tax increase on Monday. The Vancouver City Council voted 4-3 against the tax hike, which would have helped plug a $6.4 million deficit in the projected 2010 budget.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Shop local

There’s nothing like an arctic blast to make one want to ditch the convenience of online holiday shopping in favor of patronizing locally-based businesses.

But seriously, it’s never been more important to shop local.

For hundreds of Southwest Washington retailers lucky enough to make it this far through the recession and today’s nascent economic recovery, this holiday season will most likely make or break their bottom line in the year ahead.

We’ve already seen what a lackluster holiday shopping season means for local retailers.

Last year, a trifecta of massive layoffs, stock market losses and an icy, snowy start to winter made for one of the most disastrous shopping seasons in regional memory.

For those who lost a job, or had a family member laid off, the sound of jingle bells was replaced with the flap of wallets snapping shut.

Meanwhile, others, with perhaps more money to spend, chose to get gifts from online retailers like – with $25.5 billion spent on Internet holiday purchases, down only 3 percent from the pre-recession holiday season the year before, according to digital sales tracker comScore, Inc.

With that billion-dollar figure in mind, here’s a plea on behalf of local retailers, many of which still teeter on the verge of closing their doors: For every unemployed member of your family, for every laid-off close friend or colleague, buy one present this holiday season from a locally-owned business.

The impact on retailers will be both immediate and long-lasting. And for every dollar spent locally, shoppers will help provide an antidote to Clark County’s disastrous 12.9 percent unemployment rate by supporting the real engine of regional job growth – small businesses.

So we call on holiday shoppers to brave the bitter cold this week and hit locally-owned stores from Main Street, Vancouver to Main Street, Ridgefield and everywhere in between.

Yes, we know it can be much more convenient and pleasant to sit with one’s laptop by the fireplace and point-and-click through the holiday season. And yes, we know it’s cold out there.

But don’t worry: this is why ear-muffs were invented.

Business around the Northwest

As vacancies rise, malls form new plans, South Sound Business Examiner

Resellers need new permit by Jan. 1 to avoid sales tax
, Bellingham Business Journal

Oregon AG’s office: avoid these charities
, Portland Business Journal

Friday, December 4, 2009

► On the Record

“The commute will be a nightmare. I’m hoping the amenities on the other side will compensate for that.”

-- Camas resident Dave Howell, founder of iPhone app builder Avatron Software, of his decision to relocate his company from Vancouver to Portland.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Build the CRC, already

2012 isn’t just the apocalyptic end-date on the 5,125-year-long Mayan long calendar. It’s also the earliest work on the Columbia River Crossing project can begin – that is, if a miracle occurs in downtown Portland this afternoon.

As I write, 10 members of the Project Sponsors Council are meeting to take comments and suggestions, all in the attempt to forestall a vote CRC backers are afraid they might lose.

There’s no doubt: the scaled-down $2.6 billion project is in trouble, the victim of budget-squeezed local and state governments, a divisive “no-tolls” Vancouver mayoral campaign and plenty of angst from Portland-based alternative transit advocates.

Strangely enough, lost in all the wrangling is an essential sector of our regional economy, the one with the most to lose if the CRC does not go ahead as planned: freight haulers and the businesses from Mexico to Canada depending on their services.

Let’s get real. The real reason for a replacement bridge isn’t so that Portland bicyclists can have a beautiful view of the river, or to cut 15 minutes of drive time between Hazel Dell and downtown Portland – though both of those perks would be a nice by-product of a brand new span.

The real reason the governors of Washington and Oregon met at the banks of the Columbia River seven years ago was to find a way to facilitate commerce between two economically interconnected and interdependent states.

That’s it.

Instead the project has been hijacked by the interests of light-rail advocates and car-bound commuters alike, bloating the CRC like a piƱata stuffed with too much cheap candy.

At this moment, the only topic that should be up for discussion among the PSC, which includes outgoing Vancouver Mayor Pollard, mayor-elect Leavitt and Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council vice-chair Steve Stuart, are ways to build a replacement bridge as quickly, cheaply and safely as possible.

The time for bickering between Oregon and Washington, Clark County and Portland, is over.

The fight now should turn to the feds, with both sides of the river focused on securing more funding for a project essential to the economic well-being of both states for decades to come.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon sets out to see if toll road is one it wants to take, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Portland has 19th worst traffic, Portland Business Journal

Shopping local for your holiday gifts, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

► On the Record

“Even though the full-time staff number is small – around 40 troops – we are glad to not lose 160 years of history.”

-- Jan Bader, an administrator for the city of Vancouver, on news of a $28 million army training facility at Birtcher Industrial Park in Orchards, to be completed in 2011.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Training Day

With the announcement of a new military training facility in Orchards, Vancouver seems destined to remain, at least in part, an army town.

And as early as 2011, that facility will be home to hundreds of recruits, with many drawn to military service because of love of country, family tradition or simply out of a desire to be gainfully employed in what promises to be a tough job market for years to come.

Just where those recruits will be going – where they will serve, fight and in some cases, die – depends in large part on President Obama’s strategy for the eight-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. Obama outlined a plan Tuesday for more than 30,000 additional troops at another, better-known training facility, West Point.

On the day of the President’s speech, I spoke with Congressman Brian Baird about his recent trip to the war-torn region and his thoughts on the decision to send more troops, as well as the war’s effect on economic priorities closer to home.

VBJ: Do you agree with the President’s decision to send in more troops?

Baird: That’s not the important decision. The most important decision will not be what we say, but what we do. What’s clear is that military action needs to be contingent on real action by the Afghan government to end the corruption there.

VBJ: With today’s announcement, do you think Afghanistan has finally become Obama’s war?

Baird: That’s a silly question. And one that’s typical of our political process [since] we think we get to start over every four years. People need to understand that this decision is vastly influenced by what came before. Given that history, what do we do? Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has that answer.

VBJ: You made a recent trip to Afghanistan. What was your impression of the situation there?

Baird: I was also in Pakistan, in Islamabad and Peshawar, near the Afghan border. The Pakstani army took over Taliban areas nearby, and that was mostly a good thing for the people. But it took 30,000 troops to take a small valley from the Taliban. My question is what it will take to clear a whole country [Afghanistan].

VBJ: What do you say to parents of young people looking to join the military, as well as family members of troops on their second or third deployment? Are you comfortable with your support of the war?

Baird: The short answer is that I’m never comfortable with these decisions… The minute I saw the fireball over the Pentagon on 9-11, I thought the world has changed, that there’s no question that we are going to war, and that means people are going to die. The question then and always is the safety and security of the country. But it’s not quite as clear now what the mission is, or what we can do to succeed.

VBJ: Has the spiraling cost of the Afghan war affected your view on priorities at home like healthcare reform?

Baird: The problem is that we tried to fight both in Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for it and now we’re borrowing billions from the Chinese to keep things going. Before we start adding more things on the list, we need to find ways to pay for them.

Business around the Northwest

Utilities get $9 million from Enron scandal, South Sound Business Examiner

$88M grant aids utilities in quest for efficiency, Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Oregon gets $699K from fraud settlement, Portland Business Journal