Friday, January 29, 2010

► On the Record

“This time, it is real.”

-- U.S. Trust senior market analyst Laks Ramachandran, on increased investment in renewable technologies such as wind, solar and water-reclamation. Ramachandran spoke with the VBJ about the national and global economic outlook during a visit to the region today.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Larch left in the lurch

Despite ongoing efforts by Southwest Washington’s legislative delegation in Olympia, it looks like reports of Larch Corrections Center’s death are anything but exaggerated.

Due to unprecedented state budgetary pressures, the closure of Larch will be expedited, with full shutdown of the 53-year old facility expected in June, according to state Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver).

The loss of Larch is one primarily of jobs, with approximately 141 staff and contract workers affected by the closure. But the axing of this facility and the transfer of its inmates to jails dotted across the state represents another kind of loss – one of community.

It may sound strange to characterize a jail as being part of a community, but minimum-security Larch remains something of an anomaly in its level of integration with the world outside its fences.

With Larch’s demise, initiatives like the prison’s Adult Educational and vocational training programs will disappear. As will any repeats of last October’s pick-up basketball game between the prison team and Clark College alumni and current players, one that reportedly ended with one of the inmates asking school president Bob Knight about learning opportunities there.

Instead, according to legislators briefed on the closure plan, the mainly low-risk offenders at Larch will be shipped off to mostly maximum-security facilities known to be training grounds for violence and overall increased criminality.

To head off closure, legislators plan to meet with Gov. Chris Gregoire next week in a last ditch attempt to save the corrections center.

In that meeting, those lawmakers should first and foremost make the case to preserve dozens of local jobs. However, they should also advocate for a facility that encourages positive contact between inmates and law-abiding citizens – instead of restocking warehouses for criminals.

In the long run, in terms of taxpayer money saved through reduced incarceration costs, keeping a transitional facility like Larch open may be more cost effective than shutting it down.

Business around the Northwest

Commercial projects take a hit in Credit Crunch, Spokane Journal of Business

Frontier Financial loses $33.9M in Q4
, Portland Business Journal

High-speed rail gets stimulus money
, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

► On the Record

“I cannot stress enough that this is one of the hardest decisions the City of Vancouver has had to make in recent times.”

– Vancouver City Manager Pat McDonnell, in a memo to employees yesterday on the elimination or reduction of 66 city positions – 44 of which were filled.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

On 66 and 67: Here comes the flood?

A clear majority of Oregon voters approved Measures 66 and 67 yesterday, passing for the first time in about 80 years a tax increase on themselves – or in this case, some of the themselves, with those individuals making over $125,000 a year, along with corporations throughout the state, taking the hit.

Now comes the obvious question for any Vancouver-based publication: what effect, if any, will this tax increase have on Southwest Washington’s battered economic landscape?

First and foremost, there’s no doubt amongst the majority of business owners that the approval of two substantial tax increases on the so-called rich and corporations sets a dangerous regional precedent.

Oregon, with its double-digit unemployment rate and moribund job-creating industries, should be the first state to realize that no economy has successfully taxed their way out of recession.

Instead, one of the most burdensome income tax structures in the country for individuals, families and small business owners has only become more so.

Though the passage of both measures is clearly bad news for most Oregon business owners, what is less clear is the prospect of any benefits for the Clark County economy.

Contrary to the wisdom of some in our business community, the flood of companies fleeing Oregon for Washington state may not materialize anytime soon.

For one, regional economic development execs like Bart Phillips of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, told an audience at last week’s Economic Forecast event in Vancouver that he believed the time of Clark County’s explosive population growth – much of it courtesy of the Portland area – had passed.

Another barrier to the hoped-for flood is continued economic weakness on both sides of the Columbia River, with businesses in Portland and in Vancouver equally wary of expanding or hiring new employees.

Business leaders from Vancouver to Washougal to Battle Ground should instead turn their attention to Olympia – a place where the debate over the growing disconnect between increased government services and our increased inability to pay for them rages on.

In a statement today, Gov. Christine Gregoire reacted to the Oregon “yes” vote with a keen eye on the tug-of-war currently underway in the Washington state capitol: “Oregon voters met the challenge of these difficult times and clearly said that schools, healthcare, public safety and other essential services cannot be forsaken.”

Business around the Northwest

Measures 66, 67 pass in referendum, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Tax measures second-most expensive ever
, Portland Business Journal

Alternatives to buy local campaigns
, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Friday, January 22, 2010

► On the Record

“We are delighted with the outcome.”

– Columbia Bank vice president Mark Brandon, on contractor RSV Building Solution’s work on the bank’s newest branch in the recently-completed Al Angelo Building in downtown Vancouver. The branch celebrated its official grand opening yesterday.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

BOCC – one year later

My story looking back at the one-year anniversary of the Bank of Clark County failure, which can be found here and in this week’s print edition of the VBJ, provided me the opportunity to get the fullest picture yet of a beat I’ve covered for the last six months.

When I arrived at the paper last July, the BOCC failure still reverberated in conversations, policy meetings and in the majority of our reporting on the region’s construction industry – a sector particularly hard-hit by the bank’s collapse and subsequent credit squeeze.

Having reported in New York mostly from the sidelines of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, I was a bit taken back by the closeness, as well as the intensity of the anger, frustration and resulting apathy in the wake of this relatively small regional bank’s closure.

Then I realized that, unlike the majority of people affected secondhand by the financial bust on Wall Street, those who I spoke with here were, in many cases, ex-BOCC depositors, loan-holders and employees.

This was no office water cooler event – one relayed as gossip from a place removed.

This particular bank collapse, the second of a total of 140 such failures last year, was personal.

Hence, I believe you will find our BOCC story a likewise personal take on an event that upended retirements, careers and, ultimately, lives.

Some of our readers might prefer a more sober assessment of the hows and whys of BOCC’s precipitous downfall and collapse – which as our story suggests, was not necessarily preordained.

In response, I have just two words for those still looking for the entire story of the backroom decision-making that led to the bank’s failure:

Keep reading.

Business around the Northwest

2009: Home prices hit bottom, recovered slightly, Portland Business Journal

AGC forecasts bad news for 2010
, Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Few contractors forecast recovery in 2010
, Idaho Business Journal

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

► On the Record

“Debbie, I’m going to be late.”

-- VBJ Managing Editor Paul Leonard, informing his co-workers of a delay caused by maintenance on the 92-year-old north-bound span of the Interstate Bridge this afternoon.

Reporter's Notebook

John McDonagh can be reached at

We need a bridge

For the first time in what seems like an eternity, local government representatives all seem to be in sync regarding what it’s actually going to take to move forward with the construction of a new I-5 crossing over the Columbia River.

What’s interesting about this new unity of purpose among local leaders is that it simply came down to communication – an exchange of candid, direct and somewhat casual dialogue that allowed the project to regain the support of four key CRC board members and to stay on track to begin construction in 2012.

To be sure, a host of political land mines still stand in the way between our region and a new bridge.

But even with all of the impact statements, the press conferences, the endless meetings, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a bridge is sometimes just that – a bridge.

As in the private sector, when we first dream about a new building or expansion project, inevitably that vision gets tempered by the reality of what is possible given the constraint of space, time and cost. Applying that same logic to the CRC project, most parties are on record as saying we can’t afford everything that the stakeholders say they want in the project.

Given that reality, let’s get back to the CRC’s core mission – namely, building a new bridge.

Mayor Tim Leavitt has certainly articulated the case for not laying a disproportionate amount of the financing burden on the backs of Vancouver and Clark County residents, many of whom commute to work in Oregon. Though not as loudly articulated by Leavitt or others, neither should the burden be diverted to freight-haulers or other businesses in Southwest Washington that maintain a good share of their business in Oregon and elsewhere on the West Coast.

But let’s be clear: how we generate the local share of funding for the project will be a moot point unless there is a new bridge to fund.

Businesses operating in tough economic times have always scaled back on the scope of projects to reflect existing market conditions.

Now it’s the CRC board’s time to follow their lead – especially given the size and importance of this $4.2 billion project to our region.

The Columbia River Crossing Coalition and its 375 member businesses need to encourage – loud enough for the entire metro area to hear – the Project Sponsors to not only continue their joint efforts but to do so in a business-like manner.

As for the Project Sponsors, they need to scale the project to what we can afford and to consider the alternatives without giving up function and without spending money that none of us have.

The region needs a new bridge, one built of steel and concrete – not the mere idea, or proposed version of one.

We need a bridge.

Business around the Northwest

Leaders blast Columbia bridge proposals, Portland Business Journal

Builders fight Wash. energy code changes
, Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Washington’s unemployment rate rises to 9.5 percent in December, Bellingham Business Journal

Friday, January 15, 2010

► On the Record

“You will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten.”

– U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking to the Haitian people.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Don’t delay training for jobs of tomorrow

On most school days, there is a flurry of activity around Clark College’s campus in Vancouver’s Central Park, with students from high-school to old age toting their books from class to class.

Yesterday was no different – however, there was a renewed sense of destiny circulating amongst the school’s faculty, staff and community benefactors, gathered for president Robert K. Knight’s state of the college address in a renovated Geiser Hall.

“During the worst of times, we rise to the moment to support our students and our community,” he said, kicking off the next decade for a college that has seen its steady growth accelerate even faster during the past two years of the Great Recession.

In his speech, Knight outlined the school’s plans for expansion into North County, as well as a reinforced push into the fields of science, technology and engineering – areas of study crucial to the future of our region’s workforce.

To fulfill that mission, the college plans a $36 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM building, on the west side of Fort Vancouver Way. “We want it reflect a sense of excitement and innovation. We want it to be a building that engages our students and our region,” Knight said.

Scheduled to break ground in 2011 and to be completed in 2013, Knight acknowledged the timeline might now have to be pushed back due to the state’s current fiscal crisis, which includes a projected deficit of $2.6 billion.

However, this is an essential project for Washington’s economic future – one that cannot be delayed a decade or even a few years.

Along with ongoing construction of the Applied Technology building at Washington State University Vancouver, Clark College’s STEM facility would serve as a much-needed talent incubator to feed the region’s growing tech sector.

There is no doubt that legislators are faced with touch choices, including the prospect of tax increases and painful cuts in services.

But we hope that those legislators, including Vancouver Rep. Tim Probst, who was vaulted this week to an influential vice-chair post on the House Education Appropriations Committee, realizes the importance of a facility like STEM in a county with nagging double-digit employment.

So let’s keep Knight’s timetable and give our community the chance to celebrate the opening of a brand-new STEM building in 2013 – hopefully a year in which an economic recovery is no longer a question, but an unmistakable reality.

Business around the Northwest

Consumer Price Index inches up, South Sound Business Examiner

Stores face new kind of shopper
, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Red Lion replaces president, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

► On the Record

“The last thing my constituents want to hear is that state government, in an effort to raise more revenue, is driving more employers out of state or out of business.”

-- Rep. Jaime Herrera (R-Ridgefield), in response to Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s State of the State address on Tuesday. In the speech to both houses of the legislature, Gregoire outlined a proposal containing a mix of tax increases and cuts in services to plug an estimated $2.6 billion budget gap.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Putting troubles in perspective

Today has been filled with shocking images in the wake of yesterday’s earthquake in the impoverished island nation of Haiti – scenes of complete devastation, chaos and fear.

It’s also a scene more than 3,000 miles removed, in a country most of us have never been and most likely won’t be appearing on anyone’s travel itinerary anytime soon.

Despite our great distance from Haiti in terms of location, language and culture, these horrible images of widespread death and destruction have momentarily knocked many Washingtonians from their grim reverie about a lack of jobs, bank financing and the precarious state of many a bottom-line.

It sometimes takes a week like this one to put our own troubles in perspective.

A nation that has endured insurrections, extreme poverty and countless hurricanes now must be completely rebuilt after a nearly 300-year earthquake event decimated its capital.

As in other calamities, the international community is already mobilizing at the front line to assist in the rescue and rebuilding. However, given the scope of this disaster, with estimates of the dead still difficult to find a full 24 hours after the earthquake hit, the survivors will still need more help in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Here’s a short list of organizations pitching in to help the Haitian people in their time of need:

The American Red Cross:

Doctors Without Borders:

Mercy Corps:

Business around the Northwest

Emergency plans vital for business, Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Washington Technology Center awards $394,910 to spur innovation and jobs
, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Zions Small Business Index rises
, Idaho Business Journal

Friday, January 8, 2010

► On the Record

“The Hambleton deal could have been another Riverwalk.”

-- Port of Camas-Washougal District 2 Commissioner Bill Ward, referring to a recently collapsed $2 million purchase and lease deal with Hambleton Lumber Co. in Washougal. Read VBJ’s story on the failed transaction and the potential ramifications for at least 14 Hambleton employees here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

It takes an entire county to raise the economy

As it turns out, editing a business publication is mostly an indoor job, after all.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get out of the office more often, to meet more of our subscribers, readers and members of the Southwest Washington business community – with perhaps a computer with wireless access riding shotgun (iTablet, anyone?).

Though it promises to be the least “green” of all my resolutions – my four-door Nissan gets a mediocre 23 miles-per-gallon – I’m ready to embark on a journey taking me to all four corners of Clark County and beyond.

And it looks like I’m not the only one.

More than a month after meeting with North County mayors, city managers and council members, the Columbia River Economic Development Corp. is hitting the road again, this time to East County.

In a meeting Jan. 19 at Camas Public Library, East County mayors, council members and port commissioners, along with CREDC president Bart Phillips, will gather to continue or at least begin a conversation about a more regionally-integrated focus on economic development.

As the VBJ reported back in November about the possible creation of a North County EDC, there is a persistent feeling in outlying business communities that their interests are being overlooked by Vancouver-based entities.

Whether or not this feeling is more perception than reality, what is clear is that there needs to be much more dialogue between all parties, large and small, as to the course of the region’s economic future.

The stakes for Southwest Washington have never been higher. With growth stalled and recovery in the vital real estate, construction and retail sectors still a glimmer on the horizon, what is needed is a continued push to build on the strength of Clark County’s burgeoning tech sector and to retrain our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow, not just in Vancouver, but in Battle Ground, La Center and Camas, as well.

And with a special legislative session opening Monday in Olympia, as VBJ Publisher John McDonagh writes in this week’s edition here, it’s more important than ever to maintain a unified front to push for our community’s priorities on the state level.

So that’s why I’m moving forward with a reinvigorated push to cover the issues that matter most to our readers, wherever they choose to do business in Southwest Washington.

Business around the Northwest

2010: Many businesses must report greenhouse gas emissions, Bellingham Business Journal

Freight Rail Plan identifies statewide needs
, South Sound Business Examiner

Metro buys future Chehalem Ridge Natural Area park
, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

► On the Record

“Boy, I hope the rest of our votes don’t go like that.”

-- Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, after a contentious vote Monday to pick a mayoral pro-tem. After five rounds of voting without a decision, Councilman Larry Smith was selected 4-2 to fill the largely ceremonial position.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The price of security

After what seemed only a short reprieve, the ugly specter of terrorism is firmly back in place on the frontlines of media coverage, kitchen table conversations and water-cooler gossip.

The near-miss on Flight 253 on Christmas Day, foiled only by the quick-thinking of fellow passengers and flight crew, made me think about the fragile nature of our sense of security and what that might mean for an equally fragile economic recovery.

What I’ve come up with is a shortlist of winners and losers in a business environment dogged by persistent security concerns such as those that have reemerged in the last few weeks.

One of the big potential winners is Richmond-based engineering firm L-3 Communications, which stands to benefit from the increased use of full-body scanners like its ProVision system, enabling airport screeners to catch items hidden underneath clothes like the explosives bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s used to get through security by tying to his thigh.

Others like security consultants, working both in the physical and electronic sector, also stand to benefit, as will those trading in so-called safe-haven investments like silver and gold.

And if experience living in New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks is any indication, an increasingly security-conscious public tends to hit either the local watering-hole or the nearest 15-screen multiplex. Case in point: the $45 million take by 2001’s biopic about a faux-male model, “Zoolander,” or more recently, the $270 million record-breaking box office over Christmas weekend.

On the other side of the coin, the list of losers seems to include everything and everyone else.

First, the airline industry stands to lose big if the flying public, especially business travelers, decide to stay home due to concerns, not only about terrorism, but of cumbersome and increasingly-rigid security regulations. As would the ports, potentially bogged-down by a decline in trade and heightened freight screening requirements.

And as in all times of uncertainty, investors in everything from stocks, certain kinds of mutual funds and commodities like oil would be in for an even bumpier ride – as if that were possible given the volatility in most major markets in the last few years.

So it’s no surprise that we’ve got lots to lose in a business environment weighed-down by an insecure public.

Security is a funny thing – it being equal parts perception and reality.

Which makes the continued vigilance of the U.S. government against all terrorism threats, large and small, as well as a thorough accounting of all the missteps that led to the Flight 253 debacle, all the more important.

Business around the Northwest

Grants available for Safe Routes to School projects, South Sound Business Examiner

Portland area lost 52,200 jobs last year, Portland Business Journal

The top 10 stories of 2009, Bellingham Business Journal