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Alaska Air's 'Santa One' flight for Spokane area disadvantaged kids is unique fantasy trip

Sixty disadvantaged kids and their personal elves board  Alaska Airlines' flight 1225, dubbed  "Santa One," Dec. 10 at Spokane International Airport for a Fantasy Flight to "the North Pole" on the 737 900 and a visit with Santa. It's an event that could be described as the place where the real magic dust of Christmas has been scattered, because this special trip is unique in the world.

 

The children, between the ages of 4 and 10, are selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, ID, areas for this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy adventure to Santa's home.

 
 

A number of other airlines, including United and Continental, have been doing the North Pole "flights" in various cities, some for nearly 20 years. But Alaska is the only airline to actually take the kids aloft for their magical trip, in which they pull the window shades down as the flight nears its conclusion, say the magic words that allow them to land at the North Pole, and land at other side of Spokane International Airport.

 

It's there that they're greeted by Santa and Mrs. Clause and an additional host of elves.

 
 

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains "Bernie" the Head Elf, better known as

Steve Paul, president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the nonprofit group that runs the event.

 

 "We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

 

To ensure that the selection is actually reaching the most deserving children, Paul's non-profit works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories.

 

The children are picked up at the Spokane YWCA in the early afternoon and driven to the airport, where each child is given a "passport" to the North Pole and a personal "elf" catering to every need, including a backpack filled with school supplies. Then they board the plane, designated Flight 1225.

 

The flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said.  "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

Paul is an out-of-work tech exec who has made the project his special commitment. As a result of his efforts, what he describes as "the 150 percent support of the community" and the Alaska involvement, the adventure for the Spokane children is brought closer to reality than in any other place.

 

He spends a number of months in preparation for the big day, lining up donations and contributions that this year amount to $150,000 of cash and in-kind, helping get the kids selected and arranging for the elves and gifts for the kids.

 

Brad Tilton, Alaska Airlines president who will be on hand with his wife for the event, says "the Fantasy Flight is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. It's a

true delight for the children, who don't get to enjoy Christmas like most of us do and who, in many cases, have never had the chance to fly. And our employees,

who eagerly volunteer every year, get far more back than the time they put in."

 

Alaska and Horizon will have more than four dozen employees participating, from various locations on the airlines' systems. Some will be elves. Others will forego days off to work shifts for local Horizon employees so they can be elves.

 

This has been an amazingly off-the-radar-screen event, both during the eight years that United put the kids on a plane that taxied around the airport, and in the four years since Alaska Airlines came to the rescue of the event when United couldn't free up a plane with Alaska proceeding to turn it into a real airborne flight.

 

But that low visibility is changing as the list of kids registered and waiting has grown to almost 250 and media organizations have started to become aware of this special Christmas Season story. And there are some in the Alaska Airlines organization who understand the one-of-a-kind goodwill that this event represents, particularly because neither the company nor the employees has done this for the sake of visibility.

 

Horizon's Spokane customer service manager David Burris admits the visibility has been low key over the years, partly because broader visibility would only bring pressure to make the event bigger.

 

Is there an opportunity for other cities to follow suit with a special North Pole event?  Alaska officials suggest it would be difficult for the airline to take another plane and crew out of regular service during the heavy-travel holiday time. And Paul acknowledges that while he could provide the know-how to another community, he wouldn't have time to actually do another event over the Christmas season.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Paul adds that he is having a movie done "that will in the future characterize the experience. We have a couple of elves who were parents of foster children involved in earlier flights who said the kids were so transformed by the experience that they had to get involved."

 

How real is this trip to the kids? As one elf put it: "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to doubt that you have landed at the real North Pole? And then you see Santa."

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Access to growth capital could challenge state life-sciences sector's bright future

Washington State's life-sciences sector has remained, through the economic downturn, a jewel in the state's economic development crown. But the challenge of accessing capital that bedevils the industry's emerging companies, including the possible demise of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, could hinder future growth.

 

The role biotech and biomedical companies have come to occupy as one of Washington's five largest and fastest-growing sectors, generating tens of thousands of high-wage jobs and more than $10.5 billion in economic activity, creates an important anchor for the state's economic future.

 

But as the Washington Biotech & Biomedical Association (WBBA) prepares for its annual meeting next week, in partnership with The Governor's Life Sciences Summit, there's an ongoing focus on seeking to ensure that emerging companies in the industry find the growth capital they need. And that could be increasingly challenging.

 

"With 70 percent of our companies having 50 or fewer employees, access to capital is the greatest challenge we face," said Chris Rivera, WBBA president.

 
 

 

An important part of that funding has been the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF), the program created by tobacco-settlement dollars that came into existence in 2008 and has been championed by Gov. Chris Gregoire as a key to fostering more biotech innovations and jobs in Washington.

 

But it has taken deep cuts each session as legislators grappled with yawning state budget deficits, and now could face elimination.

 

Rep. Glenn Anderson, the Eastside Republican who is one of four legislative trustees for the fund, says "it's an open question whether the fund will survive" the next session's budget cuts.

 

"The fund has done a good job of encouraging basic science and marketable, actionable, investable outcomes," Anderson said. "But I'd say there's only a 50-50 chance it will survive and if it doesn't survive, I think that would be shortsighted."

 

Rivera puts numbers on the fund's successes to provide definition to shortsightedness.

 

"LSDF awardees have been able to leverage their grants and bring in $9 for every $1 awarded," he said. "These are real dollars from out of state.  This has led directly to job creation, and great innovation in our state.

 

"I believe that LSDF has proven to be a smart investment by our state into a sector of great current economic value and future potential," he added. "Other states have poured hundreds of millions into life sciences, as they see the potential economic value of this sector and are willing to invest strategically."

 

Beyond the fund, WBBA has mounted some initiatives, as have supporting organizations, in seeking to develop alternative sources of capital, given both the now-challenged traditional lending sources and the problems facing the venture capital industry.

 

Bruce Jackson, vice president for business development at EnterpriseSeattle and ex-officio member of WBBA's board, says that despite the success of the biotech and medical-device sector, these are "clouded times" for young companies seeking to ramp up.

 

"In addition to the fact federal regulations can create a headwind for companies, access to capital for some deserving companies can be difficult," Jackson said.

 

EnterpriseSeattle's year-old partnership with the City of Federal Way in a medical-device incubator called Cascadia MedTech Association is an innovative approach to helping grow the industry, though Jackson concedes "the model hasn't been proven yet."

 

"The companies we're supporting must transition from being supported by grants to creating cashflow," Jackson added.

 

WBBA itself touts the program it created called VIP Forums, through which quality investors and strategic partners (VIP's) are invited to Seattle for a showcase of the most promising life science companies and research opportunities.

 

In addition, in spring of 2009 the association formed a non-profit angel network called WINGS, whose role is to close the early-stage funding gap to speed medical-technology innovation "from lab bench to patients."

 

The gathering of industry leaders and others for whom the industry is part of the economic hope for the future will likely hear an upbeat assessment as they review the WBBA's third annual Life Sciences Economic Impact at their gathering on November 18 at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.

 

Comments from the governor, who will be attending her last WBBA annual conference, and University of Washington President Michael Young, attending his first, are likely to focus on upbeat prospects for the sector's future. But both may also share concerns about the impact of funding availability on that bright future.

 

And a comment from Rivera during an interview this week could set the stage for some discussion among attendees: "I understand and know that these are difficult times, but I hope that our state leaders are strategic in where they place our precious resources, and help this state maintain its competitiveness nationally and globally."

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Mike Lowry, who created now-debated tech tax breaks, offers another side to debate

The tax breaks for high-tech companies that are now seen by some as depriving the state of millions of dollars at a time of dire budgetary challenges were a proud accomplishment of his administration, says former Gov. Mike Lowry, noting they were created to lure new business to Washington.

 

 "We were coming out of what was, at that time, the state's worst recession and we needed to attract industries that would produce good-paying jobs," Lowry recalled of the proposal he came up with and pressed through the 1994 Legislature.

 

 
 

The focus of the current criticism, and Lowry's comments during a recent interview, are what the critics refer to as "tax loopholes" and he calls "incentives" that have permitted high-tech companies to avoid paying state sales tax on new facilities, including equipment.

 

"We were absolutely correct to come up with policies to lure companies to the state that would create high-paying jobs that were basically the jobs of the future," Lowry said.

 

"We kept encountering companies that said they had looked at and then rejected this state as a place for new facilities," Lowry recalled. "The incentives allowed us to move into one of the most competitive positions among states."

 

One of the state's key competitors in the hunt for new high-teach companies was neighboring Oregon, which had and has no sales tax, and that put this state at a dramatic disadvantage.

 

Soon after enactment of the sales-tax exemption legislation, Washington State won a major victory when Taiwan Semiconductor announced it would be locating in Clark County rather than in Oregon. "The largest one-time capital investment ever in this state," Lowry said. Other wins were a Sharp Electronics facility and an Intel plant in southern Pierce County

 

A $132 million tax break for Microsoft, due primarily to its construction of data centers in Quincy in Grant Country, has raised some eyebrows among those viewing the state's list of the dollar impact of such tax preferences.

 

While he is convinced about the importance to the state of having created the sales-tax exemptions, he is equally convinced that they need to be reviewed periodically to ensure they are doing what was intended.

 

"Those tax breaks shouldn't just continue automatically," Lowry said. "Each piece of tax-incentive legislation needs to be looked at individually from time to time for possible sunset (termination). Each must be justified on the basis of expansion of jobs."

 

In fact, in the intervening period since Lowry's program in 1994, sales tax exemptions, and exemptions from the state's business & occupation tax have proliferated and been extended to logical industries like aerospace manufacturing, biotech and medical-device manufacturers.

 

Other also logical exemptions are for manufacturing in rural counties and manufacturers of timber and wood products, though some of the exemptions may cause more head-scratching, like fruit and vegetable processors, dairy and seafood processors and cold-storage warehouses.

 

The State Department of Revenue's most recent figures on the tax exemptions, for 2009, indicate 278,000 jobs were credited to the tax incentives, which cost the state $236 million, $109 million of which was claimed by high-tech firms while $80 million in reduced state and local tax receipts was for rural manufacturers.

 

Mike Fitzgerald, who was a key member of Lowry's team as director of Community, Trade and Economic Development and who has held held similar positions in three other states and may  be one of the nation's most experienced economic-development experts, reserves special praise for Lowry. Fitzgerald credits Lowry with really understanding the way the game had to be played to bring jobs to the state.

 

"He would bring his entire cabinet together and tell us that we were not to violate any environmental considerations, but otherwise we each had a role to play in working together to go after these companies," Fitzgerald recalled in a visit about a year ago. "Under Lowry, we recruited or were in competition for more big business than maybe under any other governor."

 

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Dineen's vineyards is back to roots, not entrepreneur encore, after banker career

The 80-acre vineyard and winery in the Yakima Valley where Patrick J. (Pat) Dineen focuses an increasing amount of his attention isn't an entrepreneurial encore for the retired bank executive so much as it's a return to his roots on the farm.

 

Dineen, who hasn't totally stepped aside from his 40-year banking career since he chairs the board of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Bank and is one of its original investors, grew up on a dairy farm in the Midwest. "I knew that when I retired I wanted to get back into farming," he says, admitting that the dirt called to him from time to time over the years.

 
 

This is harvest time in Wine Country and thus Dineen is spending many of his days this month at Dineen Vineyards, which sits on a hillside north of  Zillah, amid a cluster of Washington State's well-known wineries, with an impressive view looking west toward the mountains.

 

It's there that Dineen Vineyard's grapes, primarily cabernet, cabernet franc and sirah, are being harvested and winemakers from many of the 23 wineries that are his customers arrive to load up their grapes.

 

Dineen only produces about 300 cases a year for his own use, either under the Dineen Vineyards label or the Kamiakin label, a second label featuring a red blend, that came into being about five years ago. Most of the 190 tons of grapes are bought  by the other wineries.

 

One of those wineries buying his grapes is Sheridan Vineyards, in which Dineen invested in 2000 after being introduced to Sheridan's founder, Scott Greer. He soon ran across a rundown apple orchard nearby that he bought in 2002 and turned into Dineen Vineyards. TheSheridan winery is built on part of Dineen's acreage and is leased back to Greer.

 

The vineyards primarily produce the three major varietals, but a total of eight different varietals are grown, though Dineen is quick to make it clear that "the viticulture is my interest in growing the grapes rather than making the wine."

 

His ongoing process of learning about the grapes includes traveling to Europe each year to visit different grape-growing regions and says with satisfaction that "I get into prestigious wineries that I wouldn't be able to if I didn't have the winery."

 

Like a number of those involved with vineyards or wineries in Washington State, Dineen first looked for land in the Napa Valley in California, but found "it was more pricey than I wanted to get into."

 

Dineen produced his first wine under the Dineen Vineyards label in 2003, primarily for personal consumption, but about four years ago he got his commercial bond to permit him to market and sell his wine.

 

"That was primarily to promote the vineyard," he said. "My plan is not to get any bigger since I'm retired. We could get bigger but chances are we won't."

 

Dineen, discussing his decision to be in the group who put up money to launch Puget Sound Bank in 2005, says "I had a good career in banking, made good money, and wasn't looking to get back into the business. But I figured I could do this with a minimal amount of time and effort. It hasn't turned out that way."

 

Dineen says Puget Sound Bank, a $200 million, single-office bank, "has a strong balance sheet. We didn't get into problems because we avoided real estate and focused on commercial and industrialized loans."

 

Dineen started his banking career with Seafirst Bank after moving West following graduation from Marquette University and five years in the Air Force. He then joined Spokane-based Old National Bank, which was acquired by U.S. Bank, where Dineen eventually served as president for Washington before he retired.

 

Looking ahead at the industry, Dineen said "we're going to see a lot of branch closures in an era when people can do their banking from anywhere. They could care less today if your bank has a branch on the busiest corner in town."

 

He notes "there aren't many healthy banks changing hands these days because banks looking to sell find that their book value is pretty much what they're being offered today."

 

"A few years ago, selling prices for banks would have been twice book value or even better for an attractive bank," he added. "Until we get back there somehow, you're not going to see much movement among healthy banks."

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Crowd funding for start-up companies is an idea that concerns angel investors

A year ago Congress had to be talked out of doubling the amount of wealth required for individuals to invest in start-up companies. Now the lawmakers are considering the idea of removing basically all qualifications so that crowds of small investors might provide capital for entrepreneurial ventures.

 

What has stirred support among lawmakers and others for using the Internet and social media for crowd-fund investing is the challenge faced by many start-up companies to find funding in this struggling economy and the promise of the jobs such companies could create.

 

It was angel-investor groups who convinced Congress of the potential disaster for start-up companies in a provision that, for a time, was included in the so-called Dodd-Frank bill passed last year. The provision would have doubled the assets required for an investor to be "qualified."

 

It wasn't that difficult to make the obvious case to lawmakers to kill that section before a vote on the Dodd-Frank bill, since most lawmakers hadn't even been aware it was in the bill.

 

Now angel-group leaders are raising an alarm about the implications of the crowd-funding idea. But they may face a greater challenge because of the arguments of supporters, which include not just key lawmakers but the Obama Administration as well.

 

The proposal, which has already had a hearing in the House, is to allow exemption from SEC registration requirements for those trying to raise up to $5 million. As with a similar effort to tone down requirements for small public companies, the goal is to find new job-creation engines.

 

A high-visibility proponent of crowd-fund investing is an evangelical entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise of Miami, who told a Congressional subcommittee a couple of weeks ago that crowd funding could bring in as much as $500 million and lead to creation of 1.5 million new jobs over the next five years.

 
 

 

"What we are proposing is a jobs initiative that everyone should like since small businesses and entrepreneurs are the long-term engines of our economy," Neise said. "However, they need capital to grow and that has dried up since the 2008 financial meltdown."

 

Comments like that resonate with many, including the Obama Administration.

 

But not everyone likes his plan, specifically leaders of angel-investor groups, a number of whom I traded e-mails with to seek their thoughts. Angels have traditionally been the sources of capital for entrepreneur and start-up companies that need funding beyond what's called the "friends and family" initial source of money.

 

Bill Payne, viewed by many as the dean of angel investors, says "I find Neise's claims laughable," offering statistics that could cause pause if they reach the same ears as those who heard Neise's pitch.

 

Payne noted that Kauffman Foundation statistics suggest that about $100 billion from all sources, angels and VCs and friends and family, flows into start-up companies and they create 3 million new jobs a year.

 

"That computes to $33,333 per job," Payne said. "Now along comes Mr. Neise claiming that his idea would create jobs for $333 each. Are you kidding me?"

 

 


Payne, who has been an angel investor in a number of startups in the Northwest and elsewhere, added: "It's very simple from where I sit: I am not in favor of any investment vehicle that allows unaccredited investors to fund startup companies.  It is very high risk and the invested dollars are totally illiquid." 

 

Tom Simpson, who guided one of the Northwest's most successful venture-capital firms and now oversees a couple of angel-investor groups in Spokane, said it's important for "faster, cheaper and easier processes to attract investors to both young private and public companies."

 
 

 

But he said "any new regulations or processes to reduce the time and cost of raising money still need to provide prospective investors with sufficient product, market and management information, comprehensive financial data and specific risk factors to make an educated, informed investment decision."

 

Villette Nolon, chair of the Seattle-based women-angel group Seraphs and founder of the internet-based business Homesavvi.com, says that "while the intent of this idea is good, the outcomes would be disastrous."

 

"Legitimate businesses who would try this route would be extremely disappointed in the result, as truly sophisticated investors are highly unlikely to fund companies sight unseen, even at low amounts," she said. "That leaves only speculators who would be attracted by the idea of making a quick buck, and who could get very, very burned."

 

Gary Ritner, founder and heads the Seattle-based Puget Sound Venture Club, says the $10,000 proposed as maximum investment by a crowd-source investor "is too small" and the $5 million proposed maximum for the entrepreneurial startup "is too large, and not necessary."

 

But he added "we have to get capital flowing and, in concept, I like the idea of crowd funding."

 

Perhaps the major concern shared by angel investors and others is that a backlash could occur down the road if Congress hears of abuses and horror stories and decides crowd funding was a bad idea and things need to be made tighter to protect investors.

 

The concern is summed up by one who noted that "when the pendulum swings back, lawmakers always have it swing too far."

 

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