City coaches prospective businesses

Vancouver officials guide owners during pre-lease meetings

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Reserving the Brickstone Ballroom

To inquire about reserving the Brickstone Ballroom, 105 W. Evergreen Blvd., call Bonnie Sant at 360-852-0813 or email reserve@brickston...

Brickstone Ballroom

When Greg Anderson and his sister, Bonnie Sant, were considering opening the Brickstone Ballroom in the historic Elks Building, they didn't go to Vancouver City Hall to ask about code requirements.

The city came to them.

The city's pre-lease meetings, in which representatives from several city departments meet on-site with a prospective business owner to answer questions such as "How many parking spaces do I need?" and "What's required under the Americans with Disabilities Act?" have been winning raves. It spares the prospective owner from setting up multiple meetings, and city leaders say the popularity shows they started down the right path when they decided how they would attract economic development.

Instead of reducing or cutting development-related fees, an approach championed by Clark County officials, city officials chose incentives that wouldn't potentially shift the cost of private development onto the public.

Last year, Clark County had to take $400,000 out of its general fund -- used to pay for basic public services -- to make up for fees waived for businesses.

The Vancouver City Council last year decided against a temporary fee holiday after considering several factors, including county research showing a fee holiday was not really a determining factor in most applicants' decisions to move forward with their projects, said Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken.

The city has no plans to waive development fees, Eiken said Wednesday. He added the fees won't be going up this year, either. The city typically adjusts building, fire and land-use fees according to the Portland regional Consumer Price Index, but fees won't go up in recognition of the still-sluggish economy.

A fee holiday doesn't mean city expenses take a holiday, Eiken said, and the city's strained general fund can't be relied on to cover review and inspection costs.

So instead of waiving fees, the city focused on longer term, more fiscally-sustainable improvements, Eiken said. Those include permit software that allows for electronic plan reviews, fine-tuning a streamlined review process and updating codes to remove barriers to development, steps also taken by the county.

They also include the pre-lease meetings, which are scheduled by business assistance coordinator Johnnie Hildreth. If the city were to offer a fee holiday, Hildreth would be spending a portion of her time monitoring the program. Instead, she can focus on assisting potential business owners, Eiken said.

Meeting successful

Hildreth invites a representative from the fire marshal's office, as well reps from the engineering, transportation, planning and building departments. If the proposed business is a restaurant, she invites representatives from Clark County Public Health and the state Liquor Control Board.

For Anderson and Sant, the pre-lease meeting went well.

Anderson co-owns the former Elks Building, and he's a past president of Biggs Insurance, a longtime tenant. Built in 1907 at the corner of Main Street and Evergreen Boulevard, the brick building's third floor was a secretive space off-limits to non-Elks members, Anderson said. Most recently it was used as office space.

Now the 4,500-square-foot ballroom will be available to rent for weddings and other celebrations, with a dance floor set against the backdrop of eight tall arched windows.

Anderson recruited his sister, who recently retired as construction services manager for Clark Public Utilities, to manage the ballroom. Anderson said he thought the ballroom would appeal to people who don't want to rent space at a hotel and be restricted to using the hotel's food.

At the pre-lease meeting, they discussed key details such as capacity, which will be 170 people, and the fact that a 7-inch-tall platform on the dance floor will require a wheelchair-accessible ramp under the ADA.

"It was helpful," Anderson said. "They sent a group of people, and they basically looked at the space and coached us on what would be needed."

Staff members each provided a business card, and told Sant and Anderson to call them directly if they had any questions.

'Easy to deal with'

Such friendly, direct contact was one reason Grant Merrill of San Antonio and his business partner, Phil Chou of Modesto, Calif., chose Vancouver to start their brewery. Merrill said they hope to start construction this month on Dirty Hands Brewing Company at the corner of Evergreen Boulevard and Broadway. The brewery will have a taproom, Merrill said.

Merrill, who said he's dealt with officials in jurisdictions in Arizona and Texas, wasn't sure what to expect when he showed up for his pre-lease meeting.

The officials spent about 21/2 hours with him.

"The only major surprise was that they were easy to deal with," Merrill said.

Devon Bray co-owns the Loowit Brewing Company, 507 Columbia St., with Thomas Poffenroth. The brewery, which has a taproom, opened in October in a warehouse-type space, which they found with the help of Vancouver's Downtown Association. At his pre-lease meeting, Bray said the representatives from the different departments were bouncing ideas off each other.

"Some of the things I learned from that meeting helped guide us down the road," Bray said.

Eiken said pre-lease meetings have been targeted for downtown development.

"That's where a lot of our new tenants are coming in," Eiken said. Older buildings also raise more concerns than newer ones about whether they meet seismic and other safety codes.

"We don't want them to apply for permits unless they know what the big issues are going to be," Eiken said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.