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March 30, 2023

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Barry Cain, the man behind The Waterfront Vancouver

Those who have worked with him describe the developer as independent, determined, affable

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Construction at The Waterfront Vancouver continues at the intersection of Columbia Way and Grant Street. The 32-acre development will soon be the site of medium- to high-rise buildings in the coming years.
Construction at The Waterfront Vancouver continues at the intersection of Columbia Way and Grant Street. The 32-acre development will soon be the site of medium- to high-rise buildings in the coming years. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Right now, The Waterfront Vancouver is little more than a construction yard near the Columbia River, but its recent progress is clear. Passengers in planes overhead and cars crossing the Interstate 5 Bridge can see its profile is rising every day.

It’s a different story for the man who is perhaps its most pivotal figure. On a recent afternoon, Barry Cain, the president of Gramor Development, walked through the site largely unnoticed by construction workers, and he was even briefly confronted. After Cain hiked up a makeshift walkway onto the unfinished Grant Street Pier, a worker told Cain that he needed permission from a supervisor.

“I’ll talk with him later,” Cain said, as he waved him off with a tube of rolled-up waterfront plans. The worker shrugged.

A few moments later, Cain stood at the edge of the pier and unfurled the plans for the 90-foot cable-stayed pier. He wasn’t bothered by the interaction. If anything, he seemed amused. “Maybe I should put a sticker on a hard hat or something,” he said.

If Barry Cain isn’t a household name, his latest project soon will be.

In the coming years, the 32-acre property will add more than a dozen mid- to high-rise buildings to the city’s skyline. His company is also in talks to build a 250-unit apartment building with a ground-floor grocery store downtown, on the vacant block cater-corner from Esther Short Park.

It’s taken Cain, 62, more than a decade to get to this point. Those who work closely with him say its a testament to Cain’s determined yet affable approach.

When asked what exactly he hoped to accomplish by redeveloping so much of downtown Vancouver, he said he wanted to “do something that’s life-changing — you know, not for me, but for the city.”

Then, the Lake Oswego, Ore., resident added, “It’s nice to do something that makes you feel good, and makes you feel like you’ve created something that’s lasting.”

Independent streak

Even if you haven’t heard of Barry Cain, you’ve likely set foot on his property.

Since 1985, Gramor Development has built nearly 70 mixed-use centers in the Vancouver-Portland metro area. Projects have often skirted downtowns, instead finding homes in such Oregon suburbs as Beaverton, Hillsboro and Lake Oswego.

In Clark County, Gramor’s completed projects include Fisher’s Landing Marketplace, a shopping center on Southeast 164th Avenue now anchored by New Seasons Market, and Hazel Dell Crossing at 310 N.E. 78th St., anchored by PetSmart.

The Tualatin, Ore.-based company estimates it is responsible for more than $1 billion in development in the past 30 years. Dean Sorensen, director of construction, attributes a lot of the success to Cain’s leadership.

“He’s always been the one trying to look forward to what will be successful on a particular project,” Sorensen said. “I know there’s a lot of projects that we’ve gotten through where local (officials) have used the phrase ‘tenacious.’ ”

Cain, who spent his childhood in central Texas, seems to have been born with an entrepreneurial streak. In junior high, he and his brother Terry woke up at 2:30 every morning to deliver newspapers before school. After school they had another paper route.

His father eventually moved the family to Phoenix to oversee one of the largest child care organizations in Arizona, Cain said. His mother worked her way up to become business manager for an association of pulmonary physicians.

In their mid-50s, both Cains quit their jobs to sell retractable awnings to the sun-blinded masses. Their company became one of the biggest retailers of its kind, Cain said.

“I think they were the type (of people) that did things on their own. They made things happen,” he said. “So I think they were good examples for me. In the end, the best they can do is be an example for you.”

Cain’s own path showed the same independence. He dropped out of college to work for golf manufacturer Ping, starting in the warehouse before becoming purchasing manager. Ultimately, he left to sell real estate in Seattle and be his own boss.

“I got to a point where I was ready, I wanted to go out on my own,” he said. “I thought if I could get into sales I could control my destiny a little better.”

Selling houses soon gave way to developing commercial centers. Cain cut his teeth building auto centers, putting mechanics next door to windshield repair businesses and the like. He would eventually be hired into Gramor Development Northwest, a small firm doing business in Seattle and Portland.

About the project

• What: 21 blocks of mixed-use development, including more than a dozen mid- to high-rise buildings and a park.

 Where: 32 acres along the Columbia River in downtown Vancouver, once the site of the Boise Cascade mill.

• When: Construction underway; first phase projected to open by summer 2018.

• Projected cost: Close to $1.5 billion.

It was decent work with unique challenges, he said. The biggest challenge was always finding the right location.

Opportunity knocks

Cain first considered the Vancouver waterfront in 2005, when he read in the newspaper about the shuttering of Boise Cascade’s paper mill.

For more than 80 years, the mill dominated the waterfront. A railroad berm isolated its quarter-mile of waterfront from the downtown core. The city of Vancouver had launched plans to redevelop its downtown, and Cain soon started attending meetings at City Hall.

“I think that’s part of the reason why people were frustrated with downtown, because it was a paper plant for so long and there was no way to get to the waterfront,” Cain said.

By then, Cain had been running the Portland offices of Gramor Development for more than 20 years. The company officially splintered in the early 2000s. Cain had already cultivated a reputation for getting projects done in the metro area.

Waterfront timeline

 2005: Boise Cascade paper mill announces it will close and sell its 32-acre property on the Vancouver waterfront.

• 2008: Barry Cain and local investors Jan and Steve Oliva, Al and Sandee Kirkwood, Jo Marie and Steve Hansen, George and Paula Diamond, form the Columbia Waterfront LLC and buy the former paper mill property for $19 million.

• 2014: The Waterfront Access Project, a $45 million endeavor to punch two access roads through the BNSF Railway berm separating downtown Vancouver from the waterfront, finishes. The project is jointly funded by private investors and public funds.

• 2015: Columbia, Grant and Esther streets are extended south along with an extension west for Columbia Way, lacing new streets into the upcoming waterfront development. The $4.7 million project is jointly funded by private investors and public funds.

• 2016:Crews with Rotschy Inc. and Robertson & Olsen break ground on the Grant Street Pier, two restaurant buildings, and two mixed-use buildings.

• 2017:Tapani Inc. breaks ground on a 7.3-acre park, to be developed by the city of Vancouver.

According to Sorensen, projects in such cities as Lake Oswego and Beaverton took years to get through permitting and were sometimes met with resistance by the locals.

“Some of our developments took multiple versions and several years before we could actually get the project completed and finished. It has really given Barry the experience and knowledge with how to proceed and stay with a project,” he said.

With the waterfront up for grabs, Cain enlisted four local couples as investors: Steve and Jan Oliva, Al and Sandee Kirkwood, George and Paula Diamond, and Jo Marie and Steve Hanson. The five of them formed Columbia Waterfront LLC and bought the property for $19 million.

Steve Oliva, who has been a frequent partner with Gramor to develop projects in both Vancouver and Portland, said Cain had a good track record.

“He has been a very good partner, and he’s gotten done all that he said he needed to get done,” he said.

So began a decadelong journey. Vancouver worked in lockstep with Columbia Waterfront LLC and Gramor Development, said City Manager Eric Holmes. They solicited grants, public funds and private investment to the tune of nearly $50 million in order to build new roads and pierce the railroad berm to make the waterfront accessible.

Holmes said it was a testament to Cain and the investors that the project weathered all of the infrastructure improvements and the Great Recession.

“Everyone stuck with it. Barry, there were chances along the way he and his investors could have said ‘We’ll cut our losses,’ but they didn’t. They stuck with the vision and are seeing it through,” he said.

Construction started last summer. The master plan calls for 21 blocks to be developed, which projections say will cost close to $1.5 billion. The first phase of construction aims to have two restaurant buildings, an office tower, apartment building and the Grant Street Pier open by summer 2018.

Renowned architect Larry Kirkland, who designed the pier, said Gramor stands out from a lot of developers he has worked with because of Cain’s approach.

Gramor’s Clark County projects

• Vancouver Market Center, 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

• Fisher’s Landing Marketplace, 2100 S.E. 164th Ave.

• Center Square, 13305 N.E. Highway 99.

• East Padden Square, 8511 N.E. 162nd Ave.

• Hazel Dell Crossing, 310 N.E. 78th St.

• Mill Plain Town Center, 16010 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd.

• Lacamas Crossing, 19206 S.E. First Ave., Camas.

Other notable Gramor projects

• Happy Valley Crossroads (Happy Valley, Ore.)

• Timberland Town Center (Beaverton, Ore.)

• Kruse Village (Lake Oswego, Ore.)

• Parkway Village (Sherwood, Ore.)

• Wilsonville Old Town Square (Wilsonville, Ore.)

• Progress Ridge TownSquare (Beaverton, Ore.)

• Lake View Village (Lake Oswego, Ore.)

“I think Barry and his team are unique in that they have a calmness to them,” he said. “That sense of ‘OK, let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done,’ but in a way that is creative and innovative.”

Cain said he and his investors haven’t gotten impatient with construction, even as high water levels for the Columbia River this spring have delayed some of their in-water construction.

“There was no fast way for it to happen,” Cain said. “I’m sure people don’t realize how difficult it is to get these things done. It’s really important that, especially on something big, you have a good, open, honest relationship with people.”

Columbian staff writer