Business - Courtney Sherwood
Commuters to Portland know a thing or two about traffic jams. But folks who regularly cross the Interstate 5 Bridge into the big city may have noticed some particularly nasty snarls over the past month or so. Accidents, road work, weather and the time the sun rises and sets all affect the load on our roads. But I can’t help but wonder if something else may have worsened the commute.
By now, boys and girls should know whether they merited a stocking full of goodies or a lump of coal this Christmas. But the professional Santas of Southwest Washington knew long before Dec. 25 that they’d have a good holiday this year. Although high unemployment and continuing economic problems have reportedly hurt the Santa business in parts of the U.S., there was plenty to be jolly about across Clark County and the greater Portland metro area, said Rob Figley, co-chairman of Santa’s Pack. Santa’s Pack is a Portland-Vancouver club for professional Mrs. Clauses, elves and — of course — white bearded men in red velvet suits.
Nobody knows when economic recovery will reach Clark County, but we can expect it to take longer because of the state’s huge budget hole. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to plug that two-year, $4.7 billion hole with wide-ranging spending cuts would cut pay for the 4,500 state workers who live in Clark County by $9 million — leaving them less able to spend at local businesses. It could cut some of their jobs altogether.
The Columbian exists to give you the information you need to make informed decisions about your life in this community. But sometimes the businesses we cover would rather not let the word out. Take Hewlett-Packard. When HP arrived in Clark County in 1979, it talked openly about its plans for an east Vancouver electronics plant. And for decades the company designated local employees to keep the public informed about its plans.
Paying for health insurance is the most pressing frustration at many Clark County businesses, beating out taxes and government regulation. And it’s little wonder. Though Washington rate data are not available, in Oregon — where several of Clark County’s largest insurers are headquartered — small businesses will face average rate increases of 13 percent the next time they renew their policies.
When I sat down to write a Thanksgiving column this week, I found myself staring at the keyboard struggling to give thanks. We have a lot to be grateful for in Clark County, but in this space I write about business and the economy. This is a community that faces climbing unemployment, dropping home values, a high foreclosure rate. Perhaps you can see my dilemma?
It’s a tough time to look for work no matter what your background. But veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to face extra challenges. They are 20 percent more likely to be unemployed than non-veterans, nationwide. Considering the risks these men and women take, and the sacrifices they make, we should all be troubled by that fact.
Two years ago, with Lehman Brothers in bankruptcy, stocks in free fall and local home prices dropping, Professor U.N. Umesh surveyed the economic landscape and saw a stampeding herd of wildebeests. “The wildebeests can’t see into the distance and instead take their cues from those around them,” Umesh, who teaches marketing and entrepreneurship classes at Washington State University Vancouver, said in October 2008.
Most of us can name Clark County’s official leaders — mayors, company presidents, ministers, nonprofit directors. But if you really want to get something done, how often are these the folks you seek out? According to best-selling book “The Tipping Point,” the most effective agents of change may not have positions of authority at all. Instead, these “connectors” are people who can turn to their social networks to bring the right people together and make things happen. They see opportunities that the rest of us overlook, and they know who to talk to when they have a big idea.
What do you want from us? It sounds flip, but it’s a question every editor at every newspaper ought to grapple with. What do you, our readers, want from us, the folks who bring you print and online news every day?
When I first came to work at The Columbian, I encountered something I’d never seen before. People with disabilities were working in critical roles, helping us get the paper out every day. It’s one of the things I liked about this place right away, not out of altruism but because I realized that I could one day have a disability myself. Three in 10 Americans will become disabled over their lifetimes. We’re more likely to become disabled than to die before we reach retirement age.
At The Columbian we often hold feet to the fire. That’s an important role. If we don’t talk about Clark County’s flaws, we can never fix them. But today I’d like to focus on a strength of this community, not its weaknesses. Clark County may wish it had more business success stories to tout, but we should all be proud of leaders who have accomplished something and then given back.
It may not take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but if you want to know which way it’s going to blow tomorrow you should consult a meteorologist. Likewise, it doesn’t take any kind of expert to know Clark County’s economy is in the dumps. A new study suggests that if you want to know when things will get better, however, consulting experts won’t get you very far. Even the Federal Reserve’s best models do a poor job at forecasting economic growth, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution reported Tuesday.
Five in every 100 Washington businesses are based in Clark County. Six of every 100 state residents live here. So why is only one Clark County business represented on a major Asian trade mission of 104 people — a mission led by Gov. Chris Gregoire? After all, some 7,900 Clark County jobs and $3.1 billion in the local economy are directly tied to imports, exports and international trade. Yet a list of the people traveling to China and Vietnam with the governor includes as many people from companies headquartered in Georgia and Ohio as from Clark County. Portland, with two delegates, has twice our representation.
Clark County’s big-chain bookstores are at risk. And the odd thing is, it’s because our most avid readers are reading even more than they used to. Most of us read every day, but we don’t necessarily buy a lot of books. Then there are the super readers — folks who may go through a book or more a week. Some spend hours at the library and never spend a penny on the words they devour. But others prefer to buy their books. They read so much that even though they’re a small number of people, they have a big influence on bookstores.