Friday, May 28, 2010

► On the Record

“SBA lending plays an important role in serving the total financial needs of our members, and we’re doing our best to provide businesses with lending solutions.”

-- Jim Brekke, loan officer at Columbia Credit Union, on the Vancouver-based organization’s recent SBA Credit Union Lender of the Year, Portland District award. Read our story on the rise of regional credit unions like CCU in Friday’s online edition of the VBJ, found here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Looking the light rail “gift horse” in the mouth

On June 1 and 2, meetings in Vancouver and Hayden Island held by the Columbia River Crossing’s Independent Review Panel will look to find public consensus for a final replacement bridge design – one that is likely to include a light rail component.

While other aspects of the new bridge, such as the number of lanes, possible tolls and ramp locations have received their fair share of public scrutiny, light rail has received something of a pass from even some stalwart anti-CRC groups on both sides of the Columbia River.

During last year’s Vancouver mayoral campaign, the proposed extension of the MAX Yellow Line into Vancouver seemed the only CRC issue incumbent Royce Pollard and then-councilmember Tim Leavitt agreed on.

And why not? Light rail train cars produce little-to-no emissions, run quietly and look like something right out of the LEGO mini-city I got my 4-year-old nephew for his birthday.

But let’s inject some badly-needed skepticism into the light rail conversation for a moment.

Light-rail is expensive. Planners estimate the cost of the extension of the Yellow Line south to Milwaukie at $36,000-per-foot – a figure likely to be comparable to other areas of proposed MAX expansion, including Vancouver. If the long-term goal of ODOT and WSDOT is to reduce vehicular traffic along the I-5 corridor, almost any other method of transporting commuters on both sides of the river – including vanpools – would be more cost-effective.

The Yellow Line extension “stub-way.” If reducing the amount of vehicular air pollution is the light rail project’s goal, the proposed Yellow Line extension might miss the point. With a terminus at Clark College, the line will likely fail to make a dent into the commuting habits of residents in neighborhoods like Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek – people who in all probability will drive alongside half-empty light rail cars on their way to work in the morning.

Clearly, there are benefits to be gained from the construction of light rail, especially for downtown Vancouver, adjacent neighborhoods and Clark College.

However, the imposition of a costly light rail system with perhaps questionable value for outlying areas of the C-Tran district should not be a foregone conclusion. In the coming months, as district voters weigh a likely sales tax hike request to pay for the project, a sober accounting of the cost vs. benefit of this undeniably sleek, silent and sexy light rail system will have to be made.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon not getting more rail stimulus, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

States see online tax as solution to budget woes, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Index: Portland economy improves, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

► On the Record

“I believe that the policies being passed in Washington, D.C. have put us on the edge of a fiscal cliff.”

-- Dino Rossi, announcing his candidacy on Wednesday as a Republican running for U.S. Senate.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

It’s hard to be a (business) woman

At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

Despite gains in female representation in statehouses, small businesses and boardrooms – a wide gender gap remains for women in business.

Again, that’s according to the women I’ve met at networking events, chamber of commerce functions and community meetings in the past year. And though much has been made about the recent “man-cession,” with data showing a comparatively high rate of unemployment among men, many women report a continuing gender imbalance in areas such as the awarding of federal contracts, promotions and small business loans.

More than 28 percent of all U.S. small businesses are owned by women, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data collected in 2002. And with that share even higher locally, equal access to customers, markets and contracts for these women-led companies is of great importance to Southwest Washington’s economy.

To counter the gender imbalance, the SBA announced on Wednesday the introduction of its Give Me 5 government contracting curriculum to its network of 110 Women’s Business Centers across the U.S., including its branch office in downtown Portland run by Mercy Corps NW. Introduced in 2008, the program looks to increase the number of government contracts awarded to women, with a goal of awarding at least 5 percent of all contracts to women-owned businesses.

On a local level, scores of female-centered networking events have given a growing number of women the chance to connect, commiserate and hopefully, make a few deals.

With that goal also in mind, the VBJ will publish its first annual Women In Business Directory, listing female business owners, managers and directors in the Vancouver-Portland area, on July 23.

For those businesses looking to participate, our online submission form can be found here. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, June 16.

Business around the Northwest

Rossi makes it official, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Majority of retailers view economy as improving
, South Sound Business Examiner

Boise partners with Idaho SBDC on new incubator
, Idaho Business Review

Friday, May 21, 2010

► On the Record

“We received a good return on our equipment and I was pleased with the overall outcome.”

-- Jerry Wubben, president of Vancouver-based Wubben, Inc., on the auction of 70 items of construction equipment at a May 5 auction in Spokane run by Ritchie Bros. of Vancouver, B.C. The company will liquidate its remaining 90 items of equipment at a Ritchie Bros. auction scheduled for May 27 in Olympia.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Bringing sexy back… to the manufacturing sector

O.K., you are probably wondering what on earth could possibly be sexy about a career in manufacturing – a grueling (so I’ve been told), dirty and often repetitive occupation that parents regularly pay thousands in college tuition fees for their children to avoid.

It’s true that we hold almost every other form of employment in greater esteem.

At the apex, obviously, are doctors: a job guaranteeing the constant affection, not only of one’s own parents, but any prospective in-laws as well. After that are lawyers, who of course may be a pain in the neck for everyone around them, but make good money nevertheless.

And then there’s the much more common liberal arts graduate, with perhaps a minor in philosophy who, though obviously in need of a large share of handouts from mom and dad, will surely find an office job somewhere, we think.

As for jobs in the manufacturing sector, we affect an attitude most commonly employed toward leper colonies: we’re glad they exist – we just don’t want to be anywhere near them.

But here’s the thing – according to people “in the know” like Columbia River Economic Development Council president Bart Phillips, the coming job recovery looks to be led by a critical, yet much maligned, sector of the U.S. economy.

That’s right, folks: manufacturing. On that score, we’ve received the bulk of what has been the scanty good economic news of late, including plans for a new distribution, processing and fabrication plant to be built by Farwest Steel Corp. on 22 acres of property currently owned by the Port of Vancouver.

The project, announced by CREDC this week, would create up to 225 jobs in a Clark County employment market that has seen continuous shrinkage, not only in traditionally-cyclical industries like construction, but in the previously-immune white collar arena as well.

So to the doubters who claim there can never be anything sexy about a career in manufacturing, I say: You know what’s really sexy in this post-Great Recessionary environment?

A job.

Business around the Northwest

Steel fabricator in talks for Vancouver facility, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Toyota, Tesla, team to build electric cars, Portland Business Journal

Builders say some markets ready to rock, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

► On the Record

“This is very good news, although I must caution that we may not be out of the recession yet, since the numbers are so volatile.”

– David Wallace, acting chief economist with the state Employment Security Dept., on Tuesday’s release of April labor statistics showing the first decrease in Washington state’s unemployment rate in 36 months, to 9.2 percent.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Navigating federal small business assistance

On an exceptionally beautiful Friday afternoon last week, more than 60 business owners huddled inside a small conference room at Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver.

In each hand was a blue SBA folder filled with no fewer than a dozen multi-colored handouts, with many an entrepreneurial brow knitted with concentration as one speaker after another addressed the group.

The goal for this gathering of businessmen and women was clear: get a small piece of the federal government contract and appropriations pie.

Their prospects: anything but assured.

Organized by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Vancouver) with help from the Vancouver chapter of SCORE, the Small Business Development Center and the Procurement Technical Assistant Centers, the purpose of last week’s meeting was to help entrepreneurs and existing business owners navigate the complex stream of federal assistance programs. And based on several conversations with attendees after the event, it was clear that the meeting had at least partly accomplished its objective.

However, standing in the back of the room, flipping through a copy of my own flurry of handouts, I asked myself a familiar question where matters regarding the federal government are concerned: “Why?”

If the purpose of these government programs is to assist qualified small business owners in bidding for federal contracts, why make the system so complex that it apparently takes a half-dozen business experts and a sitting U.S. Congressman to navigate it?

I do not mean to denigrate the efforts of Baird, SCORE and the Small Business Development Center, an organization that helped start 14 businesses and kept 76 local jobs off the chopping block in 2009, according to SBDC business advisor Jan Harte.

I also realize starting and/or growing a business, especially during an economic downturn, is not easy. It takes hard-work, determination and a willingness to learn the rules of the game – all of which seemed to be on display last week by people like Battle Ground Printing owner Michael Harden and Corporate Resource Alliance CEO Ralph Stevens, just looking for a leg-up.

But knowing that the odds of successfully navigating the bidding process were against the bulk of Friday’s event attendees, I can only speculate what the outcome might be for small business owners like Harden and Stevens if the system were streamlined, more accessible and less complex.

Business around the Northwest

Washington jobless rate falls to 9.2%, Bellingham Business Journal

Oregon unemployment remains above 10%, Portland Business Journal

BizBuilders Networking Groups institutes business model makeover, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Friday, May 14, 2010

► On the Record

“The goal is to get them orders and to get them integrated into the supply chain.”

-- Jeanie Ashe, director of recruitment at Columbia River Economic Development Council, on three Southwest Washington companies, Columbia Machine, JH Kelly and Renewable Energy Composite Solutions, expected to attend the forthcoming Windpower 2010 trade show in Dallas on May 23-26. For more on the delegation, check out VBJ’s story here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Keeping them (kind of) honest

Call center employee. Bookbinder. Telephone switchboard operator.

To this list of endangered occupations, add one more group of professionals: political incumbent.

With Oregon one of four states across the U.S. readying for a primary election Tuesday, a turn against the political establishment is already apparent in many races. And though Washington voters still have three months until our own primary, the political jockeying and mudslinging has already begun in earnest throughout the Evergreen State.

Where does this growing political tempest leave the VBJ – or any other business publication for that matter?

Quietly, without fanfare, VBJ publisher John McDonagh and I have either met or are about to meet with candidates running in contests throughout the region, including the 3rd Congressional District and 17th State Legislative District races.

These conversations have been informal and, for the most part, off-the-record, since like many of our readers, we want to know what makes these men and women tick before we grill them on matters of fiscal and public policy.

But what will be most-decidedly ON-the-record are the candidates’ positions on national issues like reform of the U.S. financial system, regional issues like business lending and job creation (or the lack thereof) and “everywhere issues” like taxes.

And as is only appropriate in a column boasting the credo, “Just Business,” those candidates will have to leave the partisan name-calling at the door.

From the statewide battle for Sen. Patty Murray’s seat to the local wrangling to replace state Rep. Deb Wallace, Washington voters have a chance this year to make a big difference in the region’s course out of economic recession into full-fledged recovery.

So here’s a call for questions and/or concerns that you think need to be addressed by the candidates.

In the coming weeks and months ahead, the VBJ will highlight candidates and races of interest to Southwest Washington’s business community. And though we can’t promise a straight answer to every question sent to us by our readers, we can guarantee to do something perhaps too many politicians have failed to do in the past:

We’ll listen.

Business around the Northwest

Natural gas complements renewables, Sustainable Business Oregon

Solar arrays at IBEW, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

National Federation of Independent Business joins lawsuit against health care reform, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

► On the Record

“Just remember, whatever my successes, without her it would have been much less.”

– Vern Peterson, founder of Peterson & Associates CPAs, referring to his wife in the last stanza of a poem he wrote as an acceptance in receiving the annual "Friend of the Foundation" award at the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington Annual Luncheon on Wednesday. Also presented at the event, the foundation’s “Philanthropist of the Year” award went to Joe and Teresa Pauletto of Vancouver.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

A recession survivor story

Business partners Scott Milam and Ken Imse are survivors.

Both self-described “paycheck guys” working in their respective fields for a quarter-century, Milam and Imse found themselves in late 2008 part of a swelling number of newly-unemployed Clark County residents.

For Imse, his employment status was a result of something much bigger than just bad luck. A longtime commercial banker, Imse has the unwelcome distinction of working for two failed regional financial institutions: Bank of Clark County, and later, Frontier Bank.

A nonprofit executive for Salvation Army in Portland, Milam also joined the ranks of the job-seeking masses around the same time as Imse. Both men searched fruitlessly for positions in their fields – a fact, considering their qualifications, perhaps indicative of one of the worst job markets since the Great Depression.

After a year-and-a-half of looking for that elusive paycheck, Milam and Imse decided to try something new. Last month, they struck out on their own, forming Milam-Imse Consulting, a provider of operational and financial assistance to a range of firms from the nonprofit to the healthcare sector.

The creation of new ventures like Milam-Imse may be the only good story to come out of this grueling recession – one repeated up and down Main Street, Vancouver, as well as on avenues, boulevards and roads throughout the nation. “After months of looking for work, there are a lot of people here who are saying, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” Imse told me this week over coffee at Java House in downtown Vancouver.

In the two-plus years of recession, we’ve heard a lot about victims: as well we should, since the downturn cost many their jobs, homes and, in some cases, membership in the American middle and upper-classes.

But what of the survivors?

For Imse, at least, the incredible uncertainty of the past few years has bred not despair, but a new-found sense of opportunity. “After all these years of being a ‘paycheck guy,’ I’m enjoying the entrepreneurial challenge,” he said.

I say: if there are dozens, hundreds or even thousand stories of people like these two Clark County professionals taking charge of their own economic destiny, that’s cause for everyone to celebrate.

Business around the Northwest

The medicine for ‘not in my backyard’, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Port of Portland approves Terminal 6 privatization deal, Portland Business Journal

The state of the local banking industry, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Friday, May 7, 2010

► On the Record

“Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

– Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004)

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

A few words on regulation

In the annals of human history, it’s unclear when government regulation of commerce first began.

Was it Hammurabi of Babylon, author of his famous Code, written in Tigris River clay? Or the Roman Senate, spelling out the laws on long scrolls in ink?

However it was handed down, it’s a good bet that wherever there’s been regulation, there’s been a business owner scratching their head trying to make heads or tails of what surely must be, behind taxes, the most problematic of all human inventions.

In our own day, after a 30-year period of retreat beginning with the Reagan Administration, government intervention in U.S. markets has begun to stage a comeback.

The latest sign of the changing times came courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, which this week proposed to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service, thus subjecting web traffic to increased federal regulation.

In this case, the stakes are high for all Internet users, not just businesses. After 30 years of what technology policy director Carl Gipson of the Washington Policy Center called a “lite-touch” web regulatory regime, Internet service networks have enjoyed phenomenal growth, with broadband penetration into U.S. homes at 57 percent in March 2008, up from 23 percent in December 2003, according to Leichtman Research Group.

Though Google supports the FCC’s proposed regulatory changes, calling it a “middle ground approach,” the Internet Service Providers responsible for building, expanding and maintaining broadband networks oppose the plan as stymieing innovation and investment.

Meanwhile, businesses looking to compete in an increasingly-integrated global economy are becoming more and more reliant on high-speed broadband – with many companies shedding in-house servers in favor of “cloud” storage of crucial documents, programs and services.

The fight between ISPs and the FCC and its allies highlights a question posed by businesses since at least as far back as ancient Babylon: How much regulation is too much?

With federal regulation of a $182.2 trillion derivative market looming, that’s a question in need of an answer all business owners and investors can get behind – and most importantly, profit from.

Business around the Northwest

Portland drops fees to spur development, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Beaverton ups business effort, Portland Business Journal

Tumwater setting strategy for growth, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

► On the Record

“The CRC has been in the news a lot lately, but sensationalized stories and uninformed editorializing is not productive.”

-- Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, in his 2010 State of the City address held on March 4.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

It’s not a crossing, it’s (just) a bridge

People often ask me whether I’m tired of talking, writing and blogging about the Columbia River Crossing project.

I’m not.

Fact is we haven’t covered the CRC much in the past couple months, not since local leaders on both sides of the Columbia River received this tart reply from governors Ted Kulongoski and Chris Gregoire (and I’m paraphrasing): “It’s on. Get back to work.”

Dissent has been crucial to the CRC process. That includes the concerns of Hayden Island residents living underneath the bridge, Rose Quarter merchants concerned about the I-5 bottleneck sure to land on their doorstep and yes, Clark County commuters who already pay steep Oregon income taxes and are wary of adding tolls into the mix.

And yet, the CRC process seems hamstrung not merely on these crucial issues, but on empty phrases like “shared community values” and nebulous concepts like “pride of ownership.”

Adding insult to injury in this 15-year-old CRC planning labyrinth, the Oregonian published an editorial on May 1 decrying the CRC as being “treated almost entirely as an engineering project,” going on to slam decisions made a decade ago regarding height restrictions for airplanes taking-off and landing at Pearson Field and attempts to improve access to Hayden Island from I-5.

Reading this editorial had me scratching my head: I mean, aren’t all bridges primarily ‘engineering’ projects? The last time I checked, the CRC was a bridge, and as far as I understand bridges to work, means that they are designed, i.e. engineered, not to fall down.

Given all the confusion about what the CRC actually is, I’m going to instead focus on what this estimated $2.6 billion project is not.

The CRC isn’t an antidote to global warming, a solution to suburban sprawl or a test case for the latest urban planning theory picked up during a semester at PSU.

Here’s what the project is: a job creator, a commerce builder and a link connecting the region to the rest of the West Coast.

Now planners are “racing” to make the deadline to ensure that millions in federal funding committed to the CRC does not evaporate. And if the process ultimately fails, it would be easier to take if it were due to a problem in the bridge’s design.

But to have hundreds of construction workers left jobless and the region stuck with a lift-bridge for another decade because this engineering project’s failure to achieve a lofty, unattainable ideal? That would be the real tragedy.

Business around the Northwest

Construction spending up in March, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

UO economic index climbs slightly, Portland Business Journal

Job gains continue, South Sound Business Examiner