State business group outlines goals during Vancouver visit

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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A new statewide business organization is making its presence known locally, introducing on Tuesday its non-partisan agenda of tackling vexing social and economic problems in order to improve Washington’s business climate.

The Washington Business Alliance, formed last June, has established committees that are setting ambitious goals they hope the state can achieve in the areas of education, environment, health, transportation, and fiscal governance, said Roz Solomon, the Seattle-based organization’s chief operating officer. The group hopes to bring together businesses in all sectors of Washington’s economy to promote social good in those areas “based on data and best practices, not ideology,” Solomon said.

The alliance now has about 80 business members, who pay dues that are based on their company’s size, and has a goal of growing to about 500 members, Solomon said. It expects to select two to three initiatives as a launching point for its efforts and expects to be actively engaged in the 2012 legislative session, she said.

Solomon spoke over a casual lunch at Sigma Design to 10 Clark County business representatives and government economic development officials. Sigma owner Bill Huseby, whose downtown Vancouver company is the first Clark County business to join the alliance, said he learned about the organization from his brother, a Seattle venture capitalist.

“This is the first time I’ve gotten involved in something outside my business,” he said.

The alliance was co-founded by David Giuliani, CEO of Pacific Bioscience Laboratories, and Howard Behar, retired president of Starbucks Coffee International, both of Mercer Island. The two men were concerned about Washington’s future, believing the state lacked a clear vision and goals, Solomon said.

“They had skills, and they thought we were not doing well,” she said.

While the alliance will be made up of businesses, it will not advocate for a specific industry or the interests of individual members, Solomon said, but will focus on the state’s broader business interests. It is affiliated with the Oregon Business Association, but there are few other non-partisan business organizations in other states, she said.

Kelly Sills, Clark County’s economic development manager, encouraged the alliance to consider conducting a “failure analysis” to understand why some companies choose to expand elsewhere. Sills cited Boeing’s 2009 decision to build a second production line for its Dreamliner at a non-union plaint in South Carolina, instead of Everett.

“We need not just vision, but we also need to be realistic about what we are not,” he said.

In response, Solomon said the alliance does not take the view that labor unions are bad. “But you have to get real,” she added, saying the organization would not be afraid to go head-to-head with labor unions in business or education if it had data to back its position on an issue.

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