Wednesday, March 31, 2010

► On the Record

“We are proud to have them as our title sponsor and look forward to a long and successful partnership.”

– Dan Braun, executive manager of The Amphitheater at Clark County, which announced a renaming agreement with mattress seller Sleep Country USA for the 18,000-capacity Ridgefield performance venue on Tuesday.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The Olympia two-step

Covering Washington state politics is a daunting prospect for any reporter, especially for one obliged to occasionally take his eyes off the Capitol building in order to cover other, more pressing, local issues.

However, the most challenging task of all may be following the birth, death and eventual resurrection of state budget proposals, in a game of watching what many might call, “The Bad Idea That Will Not Die.”

Case in point: the possible repeal of Washington’s out-of-state sales tax exemption. For those that haven’t read the VBJ in the past couple of months, the loss of the exemption is a critical issue for Clark County businesses, many of them reliant on revenue from sales tax-free Oregon.

That regional economic reality made longtime Vancouver state Rep. Deb Wallace’s proposal to repeal the exemption last fall all the more puzzling – a stance the then-announced candidate for the 3rd Congressional District quickly backed away from when confronted with angry business opinion on the measure early this year.

In an Op-Ed in the Jan. 22 issue of the VBJ, Wallace assured readers that she would work to find alternatives to the repeal. For some, including jeweler Erik Runyan of Erik Runyan Jewelers in downtown Vancouver, the issue seemed as good as dead.

Or so they thought.

In a phone call last month, I informed Runyan that the repeal was very much alive, this time as an integral part of the state Senate’s budget proposal to close an estimated $2.7 billion budget gap. Though Runyan hadn’t heard the news, he seemed unsurprised by this latest legislative back-and-forth.

That’s a feeling echoed throughout the region’s business community – a sense of resignation over decisions affecting thousands made by people seemingly light-years removed from everyday reality and not just 100 miles up the I-5 corridor.

Sometimes the back-and-forth between legislators stands to benefit our region, a fact not lost on dozens of workers at Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt who may yet find themselves off the budgetary chopping block.

But as the Legislature slogs through the 16th day of its special session, continued uncertainty regarding the future of the sales tax exemption is serving as an added burden for some Clark County retailers struggling through a tepid economic recovery.

Last week, Sen. Craig Pridemore, an opponent of the exemption repeal, termed the measure’s prospects in the Senate as “difficult.”

As budget negotiations continue between Gov. Chris Gregoire and House and Senate leaders, what we need now is clarity on this issue for Southwest Washington businesses and their workers. And we need it soon.

Business around the Northwest

Gov. Gregoire signs transportation bills, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

An implosion of good intentions, South Sound Business Examiner

2010 Best Places to Work in Idaho unveiled, Idaho Business Review

Friday, March 26, 2010

► On the Record

“They need 25 votes in the Senate to pass any revenue package. It’s difficult for me to see any way they’re going to get 25 votes if removal of the sales tax exemption is included.”

– Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver) on the chances an out-of-state sales tax exemption removal will be part of a final budget package. The Washington State Legislature is now in the 11th day of its Special Session – with no budget deal between the Democratic-controlled state House and Senate in sight.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

A brave new business world

Maybe it was the fish tacos from Beaches Restaurant & Bar. Or the beer.

Whatever it was, there was no mistaking the celebratory air at GVCC’s No Business After Hours, which held its largest gathering to date this week at Christensen Shipyards in Vancouver.

Looking around at the hundreds of Vancouverites, Battle Ground residents and Washougalians (O.K., I might be making that one up, but I’m open to alternate suggestions from East County readers), I got the distinct impression of witnessing a group of people who had been through a defining event – akin to a natural disaster, world war or four years of college – and somehow made it through the other side.

And indeed most, if not all, of them had.

There’s been plenty of bad news crossing the pages of the VBJ and most other newspapers lately – with more to come, surely. But set adrift in a sea of Southwest Washington business people actively NOT networking with one another at Christensen, one got the feeling that we’d finally turned a corner, that the future was something other than a thing filled with dread.

So was it with a conscious sense of irony that GVCC president and CEO Kim Capeloto, board members and staff held the first event in this brave new business world at a place where ships are made? Or that caused up to 1,700 GVCC members and guests to show up, many of them waiting for an economic flood to lift all boats?

Maybe it was just coincidence. But as I stood in Christensen’s cavernous facility with my taco and my beer, talking with several attendees about VBJ’s forthcoming Business Growth Awards (for which we are still taking submissions, found here), it felt like something else.

It just felt right.

Business around the Northwest

Health care reform to affect only largest contractors, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Idaho’s congressmen stand against health care vote, Idaho Business Journal

Better Living Show adds business focus, Sustainable Business Oregon/PBJ

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

► On the Record

“The logistics of putting together an event with 1,500 attendees is daunting to say the least, but with the support of the sponsors and in particular, Beaches Restaurant, the largest Chamber event in the last two decades will be one to remember…until the next one!”

– Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kim Capeloto, on Tuesday’s GVCC No Business After Hours event at Christensen Shipyards in Vancouver.

Reporter's Notebook

John McDonagh can be reached at

On the business of government

“Let’s go to Washington!” It’s a phrase that’s less of a travel itinerary than a call to arms for the associations, organizations, cities, counties and private companies that make the pilgrimage to our Nation’s Capitol in pursuit of federal contracts, subsidies and grants. The money they seek comes from the various funds from which annual or biennial disbursements are made – a longstanding practice better known to the public as the much-debated and often-derided “earmark.”

Last week was my first opportunity to participate in a “let’s go” effort in support of Share, a local nonprofit engaged in addressing the issues of hunger and homelessness in Clark County. Share was encouraged to apply for an appropriation from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development by the local office of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for the renovation of its recently acquired facility on Andresen Road in Vancouver.

Since I’ve never been to “The Hill,” I found myself intently observing how the center of our government conducts its business.

For a republic now approaching 250 years old, I was taken most strongly and immediately by the age of those staffing it. Back on the local level, men and women of a “certain age” dominate the public policy sphere. However, in the U.S. House and Senate, the halls are crowded with bright and aspiring young people who find excitement and fulfillment in helping to run the government.

These 20 to 30-somethings also act as gatekeepers for their elected bosses, charged with meeting all those who come to Washington to advance to their Senator or Representative the projects they feel are worthy of federal support.

The next strongest impression I was left with was the formality in which the business of government is conducted – a ritualized pomp bordering on the religious which was almost as surprising as the youthful nature of Congressional staffers. Some of these rules dictate minute details such as who is allowed on the Senate or House floor, who sits where and how they are to be addressed.

However, when it comes time to take a vote, that formality seems to disappear.

During the “constituent coffee” session with Sen. Murray we were told there would be two historic Senate votes: one in the morning, the other in the afternoon of Wednesday, March 17. The morning vote would determine the fate of the so-called “Jobs Bill.” However, we were told that before a vote could be taken, the bill’s backers, mostly Senate Democrats, would have to address a point of order raised by their Republican colleagues. During the 15 or 20 minutes I watched from the gallery overlooking the Senate, the scene below looked something like an ant farm, with legislators milling about across the Senate floor. What seemed to be a formal roll call, with each legislator’s name shouted over the din by the presiding Assistant Secretary of the Senate, in the end turned out to be the “historic” vote we had been encouraged to witness.

Contrary to the morning vote was the afternoon session, with the U.S. Supreme Court empanelling the Senate for an impeachment hearing regarding a ne’er-do-well federal judge in Louisiana. For this proceeding, the entire Senate sat at their assigned places and intently listened to the litany of charges against the judge before unanimously voting to remove him from the Federal Bench – a rare piece of bipartisanship in a bitterly-divided chamber.

The third, most striking observation was the diversity of organizations on Capitol Hill, each with a compelling case for badly-needed federal funding. Last week those groups included firefighters, parks advocates, nonprofits like Share and for-profit companies, all descending on Congressional office buildings to meet the platoons of young staffers to present their various pleas and pitches.

Underlying all this was a tremendous sense of history – not as a static, dead or dying thing, but one filled with constant movement. At the end of the day, or visit as it were, I realized that the business of government is the penultimate Big Business – lumbering most of the time, filled with a sense of decorum that can slip away whenever that formality fails to suit its interests.

But mostly, it seems a business with plenty of youthful passion among its lower ranking members, its staffers, schedulers and policy advisors. It gives one hope that these bright eyes will find a way to make government actually work better, not just for businesses, but for all.

Business around the Northwest

Ex-WaMu execs to testify in D.C. in April, Portland Business Journal

Washington part of 35-state settlement with CitiFinancial, South Sound Business Examiner

Idaho’s congressmen stand against health care vote, Idaho Business Review

Friday, March 19, 2010

► On the Record

“I don’t know how health care will play politically, but I know it is right.”

– President Barack Obama, speaking at a rally this morning as the House of Representatives prepares for a scheduled final vote Sunday on an estimated $940 billion healthcare reform bill.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Just ask Bill Ward

If the more-than-a-year-old federal stimulus bill were a student in high school, it would be eating alone at a table in the cafeteria, getting hit with a never-ending barrage of spitballs.

Yes, this landmark $787 billion legislation, credited by President Barack Obama and others for forestalling a second Great Depression, is that popular among many members of this region’s business community.

Yet even with its many detractors, our reporting over the past year has uncovered many examples of the stimulus bill’s positive impact on Washington business owners and their employees.

Take Bill Ward, principal at Management Engineering Associates LLC in Camas, who this week found out that his firm had been awarded a multi-year contact worth about $1 million through the Federal Recovery Act to convert existing government facilities to high performing “green” buildings.

As you might expect, Ward was plenty pleased with the stimulus funding his business is set to receive through the contract, which may give his firm its best opportunity in years to expand beyond its four full-time employees and scores of contractors.

But in a statement not heard, reported or even conceived of in some quarters lately, Ward also had plenty of praise for the way the federal government handled the allocation of stimulus funding: “I know there are plenty of people critical of the program,” he said. “But I want people to know that funds have been allocated, distributed and implemented through the Recovery Act. This is good follow through.”

Talking with Ward about his company’s rising fortunes reminded me of something my high school civics teacher taught me – politics is more about what people think is wrong with society than it is about what’s going right. And that may be why we haven’t been hearing good news like Bill Ward’s of late.

I agree with many of our readers that the stimulus plan isn’t the answer to all of our economy’s ills in the wake of one of the most severe downturns in memory. As a proponent of free-market capitalism, I believe that private business, not government, is going to be the sector that ultimately lifts our economy fully out of recession.

But there are good things that government has done, and still may yet do, for businesses.

Just ask Bill Ward.

Business around the Northwest

Merkley amendment dropped from health care reform bill, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Senate passes bill enhancing flexibility for community solar energy projects, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Vancouver (USA) combats mistaken identity, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

► On the Record

“While the number of unemployment claims filed is lower this winter than last – [it’s] sort of like saying the water level has dropped since the tsunami came through.”

– Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington State Employment Security Dept., on the release of February figures showing 14.8 percent unemployment in Clark County, up from a revised 14.2 percent in January.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Batter up for Clark County

It’s one of the welcome signs of spring, along with the flowering trees and the (sometimes) sunnier days.

It’s the crack of a baseball bat – a familiar sound at high school campuses, Vancouver’s Central Park and maybe one day, a new Pacific Coast League stadium in Clark County.

Hey, one can dream.

Then again, with stadium proposals for the soon-to-be homeless Portland Beavers in the Rose Quarter, Lents and most recently, Beaverton, falling by the wayside in the past year – what’s to keep Clark County out of the minor league baseball mix?

Though I’m far from the center of Beavers and expansion Portland Timbers MLS team owner Merritt Paulson’s decision making process, if I had five minutes to make Clark County’s pitch for the Beavs, I would highlight the following points:

Vancouverites already make up a large chunk of the fan base for Portland area teams, as evidenced by the flotilla of Washington state-licensed vehicles descending on the Rose Quarter for most Trail Blazer home games.

No income tax on player salaries – at least for games played at home. As you might remember from movies about the hard-scrabble life outside of the major leagues like “Bull Durham,” minor league ballplayers don’t make a lot of scratch. So what better way to keep one’s players happy than an automatic 10 percent bump in salary? Though there is a drawback: some states, like California, collect a “jock tax” on visiting players – something to keep in mind during away games at the Sacramento RiverCats.

Plenty of parking, or at least more than PGE Park, which currently has no dedicated lots of its own, instead relying on a mix of private, city-owned and metered spaces.

No name change needed. As any New York City area football fan can attest, moving a sports team across state lines doesn’t necessitate a switch in moniker. The Portland Beavers is a storied baseball franchise dating back to 1903, and could remain that way, even if games are played in Clark County.

As for possible locations for a stadium, the Clark County Fairgrounds comes immediately to mind – a parcel with clear access to I-5 and one perhaps with none of the issues that have stymied deal-making in Lents and Beaverton.

All we need is Merritt’s ear. So let’s send out a clear signal about how this community could be the right place for minor league baseball.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon unemployment rate inches down, Portland Business Journal

State’s jobless rate takes a step back
, South Sound Business Examiner

Adams postpones Coliseum hearing, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Friday, March 12, 2010

► On the Record

“You can really see how life is being affected by the economy.”

– John Davis of Portland research and consulting firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, Inc. on a public research poll of 1,200 Northwest residents showing that 68 percent of respondents have scaled back on eating out, among other family budget austerity measures, according to a KUOW Puget Sound radio report.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Another kind of green stimulus plan

Those who are Irish, or Irish-at-heart, should already know that it will take more than the afterglow of a Great Recession to keep the sons and daughters of Eire from celebrating St. Patrick’s Day next week with a little wearin’ of the green, singing and plenty of beer drinking.

Besides, when compared to 600-plus years of colonization by the English, a potato famine or any of the other trials and tribulations endured by the Irish for a millennium, two years of economic malaise in Southwest Washington doesn’t seem all that bad, really.

So with this celebratory air in mind, together with VBJ’s mission to “keep it local,” here is a list of local activities for everyone, regardless of nationality, to enjoy a little piece of that famous Irish blarney in the face of adversity:

Skamania Chamber Business After Hours at Walking Man Brewery, 240 S.W. First St., Stevenson. Tuesday, March 16, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Celebrate St. Patrick's Day early with food and beverage and tours of the brewery room where Walking Man’s award winning ale is created.

ShamRock St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, presented by the The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits, 2420 Columbia House Blvd, Vancouver. Wednesday, March 17, 11 a.m. to midnight. 75 percent of all draft beer sales to benefit Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation and the Summer Reading Program.

St. Patrick’s Day at Dulin’s Cafe and Espresso Bar, 1708 Main St., Vancouver. Wednesday, March 17, 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Performance by Vancouver’s Celtic Muse. Menu includes corned beef and cabbage, along with other traditional Irish favorites, beer and wine.

St Paddy’s Day pub crawl with Vancouver Firefighters, Pipes & Drums, various locations, Wednesday, March 17, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Come cheer on a band featuring some of Vancouver’s finest at nine mostly-downtown Vancouver establishments. Scheduled times and locations for the pub crawl can be found here.

Business around the Northwest

Tweeting for success: how to expand your online presence, Bellingham Business Journal

Wading into social media
, Spokane Business Journal

Thinking outside the box
, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

► On the Record

“I stand with my constituents who are tired of subsidizing out-of-staters.”

-- Rep. Jim Moeller, in a statement today in support of state Senate Bill 6143, which looks to end a 1960s-era sales tax exemption for out-of-state residents. The measure passed the Senate 52-45 and is now before the House.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Budget deficits: this time, it’s personal

They call it “news” for a reason.

This might be why persistent budget deficits on the federal, state and local level seem to attract so little press – there’s nothing at all “new” about them.

It’s a story from my kindergarten classroom, my first day of middle school and my college commencement ceremony. And it’s a problem that is not going to go away.

Starting from the smallest municipality on upward, it reads like a balance-sheet gone haywire, starting with the city of Vancouver (an estimated $10 million over two years); the state of Washington (revised figure, $2.8 billion); and the federal government (more than $12 trillion, a number regularly updated via the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s National Debt Twitter feed, found here).

It’s easy to blame the government, including the politicians we elect and reelect year after year, but in reality, our nation’s debt problem is one with roots that stretch to the bedrock financial institution of our society – the family budget.

That’s right: the Great Recession’s catastrophic effect on almost every sector of the U.S. economy was due to questionable decision making, not just in places like Washington D.C. and Olympia, but at many a kitchen table as well.

With that in mind, I called a few members of Southwest Washington’s business community this morning to see what had changed – or not changed – in our approach to their household budgets since the financial crisis hit more than two years ago.

For Roch Manley, AIA at Manley Architects, the recession meant that at least one personal home-improvement endeavor would have to be put on hold, indefinitely. “Boy, I’ll tell you the economy put the brakes on that,” he said.

Manley also described a shift in thinking that went beyond the deferment of household projects, taking the form of an increased consciousness about the limitations of his own budget that perhaps hadn’t been there before.

That shift was echoed by Sean Guerrero of Creative Computer Solutions, Inc. in Vancouver. “We have been more cautious, definitely,” Guerrero said.

Though Guerrero said he still went on a trip to Hawaii in the past year, he was much more conscious of his budget while he was there – an act of “measured indulgence” that many people, including this newspaper editor, are very familiar with.

But as to the larger question of mounting debt at the local, state and federal level, what relationship, if any, exists between the budget decisions made by individuals and those made by government?

I look at possible answers to that question this way: If we expect government to embrace the philosophy of fiscal austerity, lack of wastefulness and increased productivity, our first order of business should be to embrace those same tenets ourselves.

However, much like addressing the budget deficits currently plaguing the public sector, it’s something much easier said than done.

Business around the Northwest

Employers anticipate hiring to inch ahead in second quarter, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

CEO turnover surges in February
, South Sound Business Examiner

UO Index: Economy continues to improve
, Portland Business Journal

Friday, March 5, 2010

► On the Record

“Red - Red - Red,”

- Kathy Kniep, YWCA Clark County executive director, on Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt’s Leadership Analysis Color Score, which she said meant “implementer and action-oriented,” at Thursday’s State of the City address. For VBJ’s coverage of the speech, read our story here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Getting out of town

On a clear day coming over the Interstate Bridge I see them, Mount Hood to my right and St. Helens in front of me, like twin rush-hour mirages glowing in the reflected morning sun.

I know they exist, of course. But I’m embarrassed to say, nearly one year after moving to the Pacific Northwest, I haven’t been anywhere near them.

Being naturally inclined towards cities, also having dropped out of the Boy Scouts at age 8 after refusing to call milk, “moo-juice,” I’m not what you would call the “outdoorsy” type. In fact, I’m pretty certain that spending more than one night in a tent without running water or electricity might be the first sign of a particular kind of dementia.

But after eight months of commuting on I-5 through the mother-of-all bottlenecks – hello, Delta Park! – I wouldn’t pass up a little peace-and-quiet in the wilderness.
And I’m pretty sure that Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt feels the same way, taking the time out of Thursday’s State of the City speech to say, “This place we call home is just two hours from mountains for skiing and hiking; beaches of the Pacific Ocean for picnics and kite flying; desert lands and pristine rivers for fishing and camping.”
So while trapped in my car, I daydream of traversing a jagged peak, gulping down the thin mountain air and communing with wild animals I’m hoping are no bigger than a suburban backyard squirrel.

And I’m going to do it someday, I think to myself.

O.K, before you become the first person in history to call for a taxpayer-funded helicopter rescue as a preemptive measure, I fully realize that I may not be cut-out for backwoods adventures.

And yet I yearn, as all Vancouver commuters may, to keep on driving past our places of business, to the end of a grassy hillside of our own imagination – momentarily forgetting how bad the traffic is likely to be on the way back.

Business around the Northwest

Architects see increase in projects, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Northwest MLS brokers say housing market in recovery, South Sound Business Examiner

Doing something about the weather
, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

► On the Record

“This is great news for Washington state, and yet another sign that our economy is on the rebound.”

-- Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement yesterday after the release of January employment statistics showing 12,400 jobs created, ending a 13-month-streak of negative job growth in the state. For more on the numbers, including Clark County’s place in the jobs mix, read VBJ’s story here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Five wishes for the Vancouver State of the City address

It’s the last in a long line of “state” speeches this year, where chief executives across the nation, from the U.S. President on down, tout their accomplishments, praise their allies and lately, warn about continued tough times ahead.

However, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, in his first State of the City address, would be wise to deviate off the rehearsed “state” script and present a clear and cogent agenda to address the city’s problems.

Here’s a list of five points we’d like to see made in Leavitt’s speech tomorrow at the Vancouver Hilton:

1. Coming from a place of “yes” on the CRC. After years of planning, environmental review and feedback from all spheres of regional, state and national influence, it’s time for the $2.6 billion replacement bridge project to move forward without further delay. We’re not asking the Mayor and City Council to let Governors Kulongoski and Gregoire or state DOTs steamroll over the interests of Clark County commuters. But what businesses reliant on freight coming across both sides of the bridge really need is an unfailing commitment by local leaders to make this overdue project, at long last, a reality.

2. No on city B&O revival. When east Vancouver was annexed by the city more than a decade ago, one of the promises made to the business community was that the city’s Business and Occupation tax would be gradually reduced to zero. Now that the B&O tax has been eliminated, Leavitt should reassure small business owners in east Vancouver and throughout the city that talk of reviving the levy will remain just that – talk.

3. Specifics on proposed city Business Advisory Council. As of my last conversation with Vancouver’s newly-sworn Mayor, the list of members of an advisory body on city business issues had not been finalized, nor had an agenda been set. On this particular campaign promise, we’d like some specifics in tomorrow’s speech.

4. Moving from a “storming” to “performing” City Council. We realize there is a dynamic shared by many long-standing organizations struggling to absorb new members. In the case of the Vancouver City Council, it was the addition of Council members Jack Burkman and Bart Hansen and the elevation of Leavitt to a mayoralty long held by Royce Pollard. In the words of VBJ Publisher John McDonagh, an organization in these circumstances can be expected to go through a period of “forming,” “storming,” “norm-ing” and “performing.” Considering the many challenges confronting the city, the council needs to put this organizational process on fast-forward.

5. Streamlining city permitting process for new businesses. We’d like to think that in this tough economic climate, the city of Vancouver would be doing everything it could to make the process of opening new businesses a fairly painless one. But if the experience of at least one company, Je T’aime Bakery in Uptown Village, is any indication, the city’s permitting process has been anything but painless. In our Retail Spotlight section in VBJ’s forthcoming March 5 edition, Je T’aime co-owner (and vocal Leavitt supporter) Claire Ghormley describes a frustrating experience that still prevents her business from expanding its list of commercial clients. The city needs to follow the county’s lead and begin a process of streamlining the permitting process so that it encourages, not limits, business growth.

Business around the Northwest

West Coast Bancorp raises $10 million, Portland Business Journal

Planned job cuts drop 41 percent, South Sound Business Examiner

Combined MSA stats now likely
, Spokane Journal of Business