Strictly Business: Keeping an eye on economy

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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I’d been at The Columbian just a few days when I paid my first visit to a local business. That business was the one-time local powerhouse Hewlett-Packard, and the occasion was a networking event sponsored by a business group now called Technology Excellence in Clark County.

The presentation by HP employees on that winter night in December 2010 included a PowerPoint history of HP’s printer division, which, at that time, had a major campus just east of Southeast 164th Avenue in Vancouver. One slide showed an image of HP’s once-ubiquitous DeskJet Printer which, according to the HP Computer Museum website (not affiliated with HP), was released in 1989 and sold for $995. A murmur of recognition moved across the room. I’d had one of those printers in my own home for years, with no idea that it might have been manufactured right here in Clark County.

I was impressed with the pride in the product of those presenting the history of their company’s local accomplishments. But I couldn’t help but notice the vast emptiness of the 174-acre campus, which by then had already been sold to SEH America for future development. HP’s manufacturing operations had gone overseas, and within a year, the remaining workers had moved to the nearby Columbia Tech Center.

My visit to Hewlett-Packard was a good introduction for a newcomer to Clark County’s business community and a window to the challenges of our local economy. As I begin my tenure as The Columbian’s business editor, I look back on my 15 months of writing about Clark County’s businesses -- large, small and barely off the ground -- for an understanding of the forces that will shape Clark County’s future.

Americans have come to expect lower prices on products than what we once paid for those InkJet printers. That’s a big factor in our loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas factories, not only at HP but at other local manufacturers. But not all of the lost jobs were in production: On my visit, I’d met a former HP professional employee who said he was working a temporary gig for a subcontractor to the technology giant. When I saw him again 14 months later, he told me that he was about to take a new job at a salary much reduced from his HP days.

But while many will have to lower their professional and financial expectations, others are creating new opportunities. Bill Huseby is among them. The former HP employee founded Sigma Design, an industrial design company that has more than 40 local employees and is already outgrowing its year-old offices in downtown Vancouver. I’ve seen the energy of PubTalk events, at which entrepreneurs are finding new opportunities to deliver products and services. And I’m hearing more stories about business expansion and even the possibility that we could again attract new manufacturing jobs to the area.

I look forward to helping lead The Columbian in our coverage of Clark County’s recovery, whether it remains painfully slow or picks up steam to catch up with that elsewhere in the region and the state. Our goal is to keep you informed about the ups and downs of our business community. I look forward to your suggestions, criticisms and even praise as we move into this hopeful new phase.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian’s business editor. He can be reached at 360-735-4699 or gordon.oliver@columbian.com; Twitter:http://on.fb.me/xFQGpt.