Friday, July 30, 2010

► On the Record

“There has been too much disingenuous rhetoric going around for far too long. The reality has been that there will be tolls and there will be light rail.”

– Former Vancouver Mayor Bruce Hagensen, in response to Wednesday’s Just Business column on proposed CRC tolls.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Leave it to the Beavs

As a resident of Portland for more than a year, I thought by now I’d begin to understand the Rose City – including its love of light rail, of lift-bridges, the hours spent by its City Council banning plastic shopping bags.

Alas, I don’t think it was meant to be. As the Portland Beavers recently announced its search for a community able and willing to support it – in debt-ridden California, of all places – one could say I’m “stumped” over the decisions made across the Columbia River.

The reason? A storied 95-year-old baseball franchise, the sole representative of the national pastime in the county’s 25th-largest metropolitan region, seems to have been supplanted by, of all things, soccer.

Don’t get me wrong: soccer, or football as three-fourths of the globe calls it, is a grand sport. On a recent trip to Europe earlier this month, one of the highlights was watching a soccer match with hundreds of screaming fans whose connection with their teams stretched back through generations.

It was an exciting, electric experience, chiefly because for many of these football supporters, soccer wasn’t just a pastime, but an extension of self – the culmination of local, regional and national identity.

Here’s the rub for Portland, however: despite frequent comparisons to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Stumptown is still a fundamentally-American city – one which has had considerable difficulty filling the seats at a stadium devoted to an established Triple-A baseball league.

Of 30 Class AAA cities, Portland ranked 25th based on last year’s attendance, behind megalopolises like Round Rock, Texas and Lehigh Valley, Penn., according to a recent news report by The Oregonian.

Even in the face of these sobering stats, instead of increasing support of a struggling sport franchise, city elected officials joined newly-minted Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson in making a much bigger gamble on soccer with public money.

That’s despite disappointing 2010 World Cup ratings for the Portland-Vancouver media market and the absence of evidence that Major League Soccer’s newest expansion team will draw in any of those TV viewers into the seats at a refurbished stadium at PGE Park.

Which brings me back to a characteristic inherent in the public sphere of this inarguably beautiful, engaging and one-of-a-kind city: a vision of the future which is not always grounded in reality.

This disconnect is the deciding factor in the city’s decision to divert badly-needed sewer dollars for a highly-ambitious and expensive bike plan. It’s behind the persistent denial in many quarters across the Columbia River over the necessity of replacing an aging bottleneck of an Interstate Bridge. It’s the principal reason that the Beavers will mostly likely be playing in the Golden State next year.

And for a city separated in regional economic development circles by just a hyphen (Portland-Vancouver USA, anyone?), the lack of reality-checking going on next door is something else:

A big problem.

Business around the Northwest

Hayden Island site planning gets the green light, Portland Business Journal

TriMet opens first ‘Bike & Ride’ facility, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Jobless recovery also tough on employers, Bellingham Business Journal

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

► On the Record

"Papa Murphy's is an attractive option because we have one of the lowest investment levels of any pizza chain … That's often a deciding factor, given the current difficulty for new business owners to secure financing.”

– John Barr, Chairman and CEO, on news of the take-and-bake pizza chain being named by Nation’s Restaurant News as among the fast-growing franchises in the U.S.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Ask not for whom the tolls, toll

It’s not news.

The prospect of tolling on the replacement span for the aging Interstate Bridge has changed little in the past year. In fact, for most of the planners, board members and government officials involved in the project, tolls have long been a given – a non-issue eclipsed by larger, still yet-to-be-decided elements of the bridge’s design, including the location of Hayden Island interchanges and the exact number of lanes.

Tolls are coming.

The sooner Southwest Washingtonians accept this reality, the faster we can use the region’s considerable clout to help determine the answer to three crucial questions: when, where and how much.

First, the question of when. With the advent of electronic tolling systems, bridge levies may vary by direction of travel, vehicle type – and perhaps most importantly for thousands of Clark County commuters – time of day. According to WSDOT, proposed CRC tolls will be variable, with higher toll rates occurring during peak (read: rush) hours. Community input, advocacy by local government leaders and input by area CRC members can still ensure that the overwhelming majority of toll revenue for the new bridge won’t be on the backs of Southwest Washington commuters.

Now to the second question: where. While tolls may be a given for the planned replacement bridge on I-5, levies on the Glenn Jackson Bridge remain uncertain. However, even a 9-year-old child of a transportation planner must realize that in order to avoid creating a parking lot in east Vancouver, tolls on both crossings are necessary. According to a Tolling Story Committee Report submitted to both state legislatures in January 2010, tolling just the CRC could divert as many as 37,000 daily vehicle trips to an already overburdened I-205 crossing.

Finally, the question seemingly every Clark County shopper, commuter and occasional Riverfront Park food cart patron has a stake in: how much. According to the CRC toll report, estimates for single crossings for passenger vehicles range from $1 to $6, with at least one scenario calling for tolls crossing the span on the southbound side only. With CRC funding from other sources far from certain, Southwest Washington officials need to unite now to ensure that the burden of paying for a project of regional, national and even international importance be shared equitably by all parties.

Now is not the time to hold politicians to unrealistic campaign promises. Instead, what we need is leadership to ensure residents get the bridge they deserve … and can afford.

Business around the Northwest

Milwaukie MAX falls short on funding, Portland Business Journal

Oregon bridges deficient, but not yet broken, Oregon Journal of Commerce

Looks good on paper, but…, South Sound Business Examiner

Friday, July 23, 2010

► On the Record

“Something like 80 percent of employment in the United States is from small business, but the problem is that big banks don’t understand small business.”

– Arch Miller, founder of the International Air and Hospitality Academy, at a small business roundtable discussion held by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi in Vancouver Thursday.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Blog this: print is here to stay

Without much fanfare, online retail giant Amazon announced Monday that it had sold more E-books than hardcover editions in June.

It was a first for Amazon, an industry leader in the sale of E-books for use on a growing number of digital reading platforms and devices. The news was also a first in the long history of publishing – an ink-splattered and pulp-eating tradition stretching back to Guttenberg and his printing press.

Since my earliest days as a reporter, fears of the growth of online readership at the expense of print newspaper circulation have dominated discussion on the future of the industry. Playing on those concerns, academics and media observers decried the “death” of American journalism, with the objective standards of iconic newsmen like Edward R. Murrow sacrificed on the altar of some godless blogging Babylon.

This was back in 2006.

Four years and a Great Recession later, we print journalists are still here, covering our beats under a standard that has changed little since the so-called “Golden Age” of journalism. And while uncertainty lingers, I believe newspapers will be here in five years, 15 years, 20 years… or as long as there are people still interested in happenings from Wall to Main streets.

While you ponder the irony of my defense of print journalism in an online column, here’s why I think newspapers are here to stay:

Newsprint is final. When you read a newspaper article, you are consuming a quality product reported, edited and proofread for final publication. In print journalism, unlike other online news forums, there are no take-backs, so we work hard to get it right the first time.

Old vs. new. Many newsrooms – even small ones like ours – often mix new blood (this editor) with the old (an experienced, though still youthful, VBJ publisher John McDonagh) in a practice that often results in new perspectives and ideas regarding the issues of the day. By contrast, blogging is mostly a one-man show.

Community. A pervasive cloud of anonymity still accompanies many online news sources. However, newspapers remain an integral part of the neighborhoods, towns and cities they cover.

As we continue down a path towards more and more digital publishing options, newspapers will have to continue to adapt to the changing habits of our readers. That much is clear for the present.

But here’s my promise for the future: since you have not given up on us, we will not give up on you.

Business around the Northwest

PDX lands new tenant, Portland Business Journal

CRC receives $42M in federal funding, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Leading Economic Index for the U.S. declines, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

► On the Record

“With the passage of Wall Street Reform into law today, the era of taxpayer-funded Wall Street bailouts is officially over. “

– Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), reacting to President Barack Obama’s signing of a historic financial reform bill into law on Wednesday.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

One year later

It would have been my “paper anniversary” – that is, if I were actually married to my job.

Tuesday marked exactly one year since I took over as head of the editorial department at the Vancouver Business Journal. And while I spent most of the day finalizing this week’s print edition, the occasion also presented me with a tidy timeline in which to frame the last year in Southwest Washington business news.

When I arrived in Vancouver in July 2009, the Al Angelo Building was not yet finished. The site of the ongoing Vancouver Community Library project was a sandy, weed-covered lot. Princeton Athletic Club was open for business; nearby, the former home of The Columbian newspaper was a building still in search of an anchor tenant.

One of my first assignments involved covering the auction of George Schmid & Sons’ construction equipment at Evergreen Airfield, watching millions of dollars worth of machinery become scattered relics of boom years past.

Summer soon turned to autumn, full of talk of continued economic tension, traffic and tolls. For the city of Vancouver, it was a historic election season that swept a new, but still familiar, face into the mayor’s seat.

And yet, campaign placards still had to compete with “Closed” and “For Rent” signs on once-bustling shopping corridors as Princeton, Studer’s Floor Covering, Inc. and 1220 Main, among others, became casualties of a painfully-long and deep recession.

Despite the gloom, there was also good news. In August, the Port of Vancouver opened Terminal 5, clearing the way for increased trade in wind turbine engine parts. A few months later, Renewable Energy Composite Solutions, Inc., a division of Christensen Shipyards, unveiled its vertical wind turbine prototype in a bid to create and sustain more than a dozen jobs.

Winter turned to spring, and with the change in seasons, some hope that an economic recovery would finally begin to take hold. At VBJ’s 2010 Business Growth Awards in April, we celebrated the entrepreneurs and veteran businessmen and women who not only persevered, but sought to take full advantage of the economic opportunities the region still had to offer.

Coming from the anonymity of big city living, I watched with interest over the past 12 months as Southwest Washington’s business community banded together in tough times, forming networking groups, creating job list-services and holding countless informal events to keep in touch.

Which brings me to what sticks out the most about Southwest Washington since I took over the editorial helm at the VBJ – the knowledge that, in this corner of the world at least, people still know where their chief asset lies: in each other.

Business around the Northwest

Home construction at lowest since fall, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Oregon loses 15,700 jobs in past year
, Portland Business Journal

Washington state sees first job-vacancy gains in three years, Bellingham Business Journal

Friday, July 16, 2010

► On the Record

“Our commercial real estate portfolio continues to perform well despite the negative national press these types of loans have received.”

-- Dave Dahlstrom, executive vice president and chief credit officer at Riverview Bank. On Thursday, the Vancouver-based financial institution reported first quarter net income of $1.8 million, with non-performing assets decreasing to 5.54 percent of total assets, down from 5.89 percent the previous quarter.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Whatever works

As we hurdle towards an uncertain economic recovery, policymakers in Washington, D.C. have formed two camps, roughly delineated along party lines: those who believe an extension of Bush-era tax cuts will stimulate economic activity and those who think continued federal spending is the only way to ensure against a dreaded double-dip recession.

Since this is a column, which generally consists of my opinion on developments of interest to Southwest Washington’s business community, one might wonder what camp I belong to.

The quick answer, for me, is neither.

There’s an economic case to be made for each policy position. As a newspaper editor in New York City, I penned editorials slamming then newly-appointed Gov. David Paterson’s decision in late 2008 to institute what he called a “millionaire’s” tax – a levy which actually included those making $250,000 a year or more, including many small business owners already struggling through the worst recession in 60 years.

On the federal level, though President George W. Bush’s tax cuts have been demonized by many on the left, there is a case to be made that key aspects of his policy, such as the temporary elimination of the estate tax, have been a contributing factor in terms of business growth.

But there’s also a case to be made for increased government spending in times of economic distress.

Whatever one’s feeling about the $787 billion federal stimulus bill, it would be the height of folly if Vancouver, Clark County and the rest of Washington did not try to get as big a piece of the federal funding pie as possible – especially given the estimated 13,000 state residents who exhausted their full 99 weeks of jobless benefits this month.

And yet despite the desperate need, I recently spoke to one candidate for statewide office who promised to vote against any bill – regardless of benefit in terms of jobs created or tax revenue generated – that involved the use of federal stimulus funds.

In response, on behalf of struggling small business owners, idled contractors and the thousands of unemployed, I say when it comes to our economy, I ascribe to no party; no partisan ideology holds my interest.

I belong to neither camp.

The America in which I grew up eschewed extremes of right or left. Instead, our philosophy, if indeed you could call it one, was this: “Whatever works.”

If tax cuts represent our best chance for prosperity, so be it. If stimulus means more employed workers – show me the way. And if the more likely scenario of a mix of both tax incentives and government spending is the best option, then I’m all for it.

Because whatever works, works.

Business around the Northwest

Riverview Bancorp net income spikes, Portland Business Journal

Umpqua revives construction loan department
, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

New tax law sets equal penalty for all employers, Bellingham Business Journal

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

► On the Record

“So, what do you all think? If the Sonics were still around and I-1098 was already in place, would Lebron [sic] want to come here?”

-- Question posed by Defeat 1098, a newly-formed coalition against a ballot measure to institute an income tax on high-wage earners, via the organization’s Twitter feed.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

How I spent my summer vacation

The trip took ‘only’ 18 hours, on which I can say the sun never set.

Tracing the northern latitudes, my journey took me from Portland International to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, then Amsterdam to Stockholm, then Stockholm to the Swedish port city of Nynäshamn to catch a three-hour boat ride to an island 143 kilometers off the coast in the Baltic Sea.

A few days later, near the spot where one of my best friends got married to his longtime Swedish-British-American-citizen girlfriend, there was a competition among the assembled international guests to see who had traveled the farthest.

With nearly 5,000 miles and nine time zones under my belt, I won, hands down.

“So what do you do back in the states?” one of the guests, a Swedish stepmother of the bride, asked.

“I edit a business journal,” I said. “In Vancouver.”

After the customary minute-and-a-half of geographic clarification (shouldn’t all Southwest Washingtonians just print pocket-sized index cards to give out on such occasions?), the conversation shifted to a subject seemingly of great interest to most Europeans: America.

While abroad, I am unflinchingly polite. In my conversation with the bride’s family, I credited their country for being beautiful and orderly – an almost-seamless utopia filled with beauty pageant contestants.

However, what I did not mention was the darker side to this Nordic paradise.

Swedes pay up to 57 percent in income tax, one of the world’s highest, to their government. For Washington residents who balk at paying 8 percent state sales tax, the 25 percent that one pays in Sweden would seem a giant-sized slap in the face – even with the favorable U.S. dollar to Swedish kroner exchange rate. Regulations covering apartment rentals in Stockholm are so onerous that most residents resort to the black market to find a decent flat.

And while the government undeniably takes good care of its citizens, providing mostly free health care, mandating upwards of four weeks of vacation and generous retirement benefits, it strongly discourages businessmen and women from striking out on their own.

Which is not to say entrepreneurs do not exist in Sweden, however, they survive despite long odds, with a tax and regulatory system set against them.

During my trip, I reflected on the economic tumult that has rocked our economy, on whether our whole system may need to be changed to reflect a new reality. I thought of the Swedish model and wondered if it would work in Vancouver, Washington, or in any number of communities throughout the nation.

I imagined what it would be like to grow up in such a country, with the knowledge that the state would always take care of you, albeit on their terms, not your own.

And I felt my individualistic, slightly-stubborn American backbone shutter a bit.

So it was with more than a little bit of relief that I retraced my long journey, embarking on a three-hour ferry, Stockholm to Amsterdam and then home.

Business around the Northwest

Unemployment tax penalty changes should save employers money, South Sound Business Examiner

B.C. tax exemption hearing moved back, Bellingham Business Journal

Umpqua revives construction loan department, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce