Business year in review 2012

In a year of challenge and change, these stories stand out

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Clark County dusted off some of its business doldrums this year, bringing signs of promise and even growth despite the absence of any significant new economic engines.

Housing finally took an upward turn while unemployment at last slipped below 10 percent. Liquor sales went private, and perhaps next year marijuana will be offered for sale in a regulated sales environment that voters abandoned for liquor sales. In both cases, voters mandated change.

An entirely new issue emerged with proposals to transport coal from Montana and Wyoming coal fields to Oregon and Washington export terminals, in some cases through Clark County.

Those stories are highlighted on Page 1 of today's Columbian. But there were plenty of other important business stories during 2012, and we highlight some of them here as we wrap up a year of transition.

HOUSING: Clark County reported a year-over-year increase in single-family housing starts each month of 2012, as low interest rates drove up demand -- despite stagnant or declining household incomes -- and the supply of existing homes offered for sale dwindled. Meanwhile, the county saw a large number of building permits for apartment construction as a growing number of residents chose apartments, either by choice or because home ownership was beyond their reach. The county issued 547 single-family permits valued at $173.1 million in this year's first 11 months, compared to 323 permits valued at $110.3 million in the first 10 months of 2011. In the pre-recession era, the county issued 1,186 home permits in the first 11 months of 2007.

RETAIL: Large retailers, especially in the grocery sector, set out during the year to expand their offerings in the county. In the Salmon Creek/Hazel dell area, work began on a new Grocery Outlet Bargain Market in a former Hazel Dell Albertsons' space while Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Foods launched an expansion of its store near the Interstate 5 exit to Northeast 99th Street. Work also is underway on a new Chuck's Produce and Street Market at Northeast Highway 99 and 117th Street.

Wal-Mart Stores announced plans to develop a new store on a parcel of land at Scotton Way and Northeast 117th Avenue in Battle Ground, a proposal that continues to face opposition. It would be the county's fourth Walmart.

And in Portland, where many Clark County residents shop, Target opened a new, larger replacement for its store at Jantzen Beach as part of an ongoing $50 million renovation of the Jantzen Beach mall.

DOWNTOWN DISTRICTS: Real estate activity picked up in Vancouver's downtown, as vacant buildings were sold, leased and refurbished and the area welcomed a handful of new businesses, such as Gravitate Design, and expanding businesses, such as Apple and Alling Henning Associates Inc. The Fort Vancouver Trust's move to purchase the historic Academy building, still in the works, could have a long-term positive impact on downtown. But in the short term, the ongoing battle over the Columbia River Crossing development continues to create uncertainty for downtown property and business owners.

In Camas, downtown struggled with high retail vacancies and pinned its hopes on prospective new businesses, including a planned brew pub. Expected to open next year, the venue is expected to breath new vitality into a district with an abundance of charm. In downtown Washougal, several new tenants helped populate a long-struggling 7,500-square-foot, two-story commercial building at 1887 Main St. The building, owned by Lone Wolf Development, is now about half full.

EMPLOYMENT/WORKPLACE: Portland-based Pendleton Woolen Mills was hit with $93,300 in penalties for dozens of alleged workplace safety violations at its Washougal textile mill, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. After an appeal, the company negotiated with the Department of Labor & Industries for a total penalty of $46,650 and made a commitment to safety improvements at the mill.

RS Medical, a Vancouver-based supplier of medical equipment, undergoes a wave of layoffs as it outsourced some administrative operations overseas. The company says it wants to reposition itself in the sub-specialty of pain management.

The year is ending in high drama on a contract extension between the International Longshore and Warehouse union and operators of six grain terminals, including United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver. Both sides say the dispute is over non-wage issues, including job security and flexibility for terminal operators.

TECH SECTOR: The highly-secretive Hewlett-Packard quietly relocated from a vast east Vancouver campus to the 478,000-square-foot Columbia Center at the Columbia Tech Center, a building that also houses PeaceHealth. California-based HP, facing financial struggles in the fast-changing computer hardware market, operates a part of its printer division in Vancouver.

Camas-based Sharp Corp. subsidiaries -- Sharp Laboratories and Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas -- remained strong while a third -- Sharp Solar -- withered. The solar division had moved to Camas in 2011 but little remained by the end of this year as the Japan-based parent company struggled to strengthen its finances.

WaferTech, based in Camas, became a focus of attention this month as its parent company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., explored options for building a new chip plant, possibly in Oregon or New York. Camas was not mentioned in trade journals as a possibility, despite the abundance of vacant land at the WaferTech site and concerns of a shrinking market for WaferTech's older-generation chips.

BANKING: Riverview Bancorp, corporate parent of Riverview Bank -- the only remaining Clark County-based bank -- rebounded from three consecutive quarterly losses with a $1.8 million third-quarter profit. But the bank faces a $1.4 million lawsuit filed by a former internal auditor who claims the company wrongfully fired her for uncovering and reporting fraudulent activity at the bank.

Spokane-based Sterling Bank completed its acquisition of the former First Independent Bank, a process that included dozens of layoffs as operations were centralized in Spokane, as well as the closure of three part-time branches in senior centers. Other banking competitors made moves to expand in Clark County, most notably Olympia-based Heritage Bank, which established a headquarters in Vancouver for its southern region,

PUBLIC COMPANIES: Barrett Business Services Inc., one of four publicly-traded companies in Clark County, settled a tough proxy fight last spring brought on by Kimberly Sherertz, widow of former company CEO William Sherertz. Barrett agreed to buy about 2.5 million shares from Sheretz' estate in a nearly $60 million deal. The company's stock price has nearly doubled for the year.

Nautilus Inc. also reported third-quarter profits and increased sales as it rolled out new fitness equipment products. The company also marked a milestone by moving into a new world headquarters building at the Tech Center in east Vancouver.

Vancouver-based Northwest Pipe Co. on Thursday remained profitable even as its net sales declined. The company's stock price was down almost 9 percent for the year. The company promoted Scott Montross to president and CEO on Jan. 1, 2013, replacing Richard Roman, who will become executive chairman of the board of directors.

Riverview Bancorp, discussed in the banking section on this page, saw its stock price drop by 25 percent for the year.

TRANSACTIONS: In one of the biggest company sales in Clark County history, consumer company giant Church & Dwight Co. of Princeton, N.J., purchased the corporate parent of Vancouver-based Northwest Natural Products, maker of gummy vitamins, for $650 million. Some local job losses are expected, although no news of layoffs have emerged from the low-profile company.

Vancouver-based ClearAccess sold its core software business to Silicon Valley technology giant Cisco for an undisclosed sum. ClearAccess founder Ken Hood one of 22 employees moving to Cisco offices in Lake Oswego, Ore. A hardware unit continues in Vancouver under the name SmartRG Inc.

PeaceHealth, which began settling into its new headquarters at Vancouver's Tech Center, swung into another transition in the form of a proposed merger with Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiative. (See Page 1 story).

ON THE WATERFRONT: Sapa Extrusions North America, which makes aluminum products such as deck railing and bike frames, opened a 142,800-square-foot building at the Port of Vancouver, the company's first facility in Washington state. The site has 100 employees, and much of its equipment was moved from a Portland site.

The Port of Vancouver remained on time and within budget on its multi-year, $275 million West Vancouver Freight Access project, which is expected to generate thousands of jobs over several years. And in Camas, the Port of Camas-Washougal Board of Commissioners acquire about half of the 26-acre former Hambleton Lumber Co. site to provide public access to the Columbia River for recreation and commercial development.

Compiled by Business Editor Gordon Oliver and business reporters Cami Joner and Aaron Corvin

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