Four local business leaders described their own stories of finding success — often through unforeseen circumstances.
Eric Preisz, CEO of GarageGames, was once a customer of the video game technology company he now leads.
Mary Sisson, co-owner of Kazoodles toy store in Vancouver, said she never dreamed of owning a business before she began pursuing a venture that opened in 2006.
“We did a lot of homework,” Sisson said. “All I’d ever sold was Girl Scout cookies, so I had a lot to learn.”
The session’s other panelists were Betsy Henning, founder and CEO of AHA!, a marketing and communications firm in Vancouver, and Russell Brent, owner of Mill Creek Pub in Battle Ground. The panelists emphasized the importance of small, independent businesses and their ability to boost the local economy and local relationships.
“Local businesses matter. We really matter,” Sisson said. “Not just to our customers, but to our communities in so many ways.”
The discussion was moderated by Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association.
The panel’s four speakers addressed everything from the positive economic impact of a college education and the importance of infrastructure to the need for flexible land-use zones and the ongoing effort to redevelop Vancouver’s waterfront.
Lynn Valenter, vice chancellor for Washington State University Vancouver, said the value of higher education cannot be understated as research shows it leads to higher future earnings for graduates, lower unemployment and more economically stable families.
Teresa Brum, economic development division manager for the city of Vancouver, said the city has several bright prospects this year. Those prospects include ongoing work by Columbia Waterfront LLC to carry out a $1.3 billion plan to redevelop Vancouver’s 32-acre waterfront into a mix of commercial and residential uses.
“It’s our turn here in Vancouver,” she said. Brum also noted the Port of Vancouver’s plan to develop a mixed-use building at its Terminal 1 waterfront property, which is next to the 32-acre site.
Other panelists were Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council and Paul Dennis, president and CEO of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association. Ron Arp, president of Amplify Group, served as moderator.
Panelists said the housing and commercial development industries are enjoying a solid recovery, but they face a number of new issues as a result. Eric Fuller, president of the Eric Fuller & Associates commercial real estate firm, said retail space is filling up as rising retail sales create demand for more commercial space. But vacancies for Class A office space remain high and no new projects are on the drawing board, he said. The tightest market is for industrial land, with just a 4 percent vacancy rate, Fuller said.
John Blom, real estate broker with the Hasson Company, said the percentage of first-time homebuyers is still below historical patterns. Blom thinks the market could expand as more people who lost their homes in the recession return to the housing market. “If it weren’t for Oregon retirees and people coming up from California, I would be out of business,” he said.
Kelly Helmes, vice president of New Tradition Homes, said his company is increasing its production but remains well below it’s pre-recession peak. Members of the so-called millennial generation comprise just 10 percent of his buyers, and it remains unclear when they will enter the market in larger numbers, he said. Homebuyers increasingly are looking for energy-efficient, well-built homes that will save them money over the long run, Helmes said.
Developer Ryan Hurley, who has renovated several properties in downtown Vancouver, said he has been successful by spending time helping prospective tenants define their needs rather than just focusing on profit.
Linda Reid, vice president and client manager for U.S. Bank in Vancouver, was panel moderator.
During the panel on “Prospects for Large Employers” some panelists keyed in on how communities and businesses should work together to thrive.
John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab, urged a coordinated effort to improve the region’s transportation infrastructure. “Serious commitment to jobs in our community begins with a serious commitment to transportation,” he said.
Ben Bagherpour, vice president of operations for SEH America, said businesses and schools should coordinate to find skilled workers. Whether a business is looking for a machine operator or builder, “we can do better communicating,” he said.
Bryce Helgerson, chief administrative officer with Legacy Salmon Creek, and Jason Koenders, senior vice president of engineering and network planning with Integra, were also on the panel. Jeanne Bennett, executive director with the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, moderated the discussion.
Compiled by Columbian reporters Eric Florip and Lauren Dake, business reporter Aaron Corvin and business editor Gordon Oliver.