Log in
updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

FlynnsHarp logo 042016

Durkan faces decision on tax-ruling appeal that may help define her as mayor

SeattleTax_banner

It's quite likely that Jenny Durkan won't get through her first day of business after she is sworn in tomorrow as Seattle's first woman mayor in more than 90 years before she has to make a decision that could help define how she will be perceived as Seattle's chief executive.

The issue is the ill-framed and now court-rejected Seattle city income tax and whether or not the city will appeal the decision made by King County Superior Court Judge John Ruhl late afternoon of the day before Thanksgiving, giving those involved a long weekend to think about what now with the case.  

And those thinking about "what now" undoubtedly includes Durkan, who has said she favors the income tax but is also on record, the day she announced her candidacy last May, that while she views the state's tax system as too regressive, she doubts that a city income tax is the right solution.  

But that was before the city council that she will have to work with approved the income tax measure in July, enacting a resolution supporters called a "wealth tax," amid cheers from those in attendance of "tax the rich!"  

It was actually referred to as a tax on high incomes, 2 percent of the amount above $200,000 for an individual or $500,000 for those filing jointly. Perhaps spurred by the cheers from the gallery, the amount was boosted to 2.25 percent, a move criticized by opponents as an action driven by little more than a whim.

Judge Ruhl found that the city had no authority under state law to impose the tax, in fact, was in violation of two state statutes, and rejected the city contention that what was called an income tax was actually an excise tax for the privilege of earning a living in Seattle. A cynic might suggest that if you are trying to sell a pig, and call it a stallion, it might bring a better price.

As Ruhl wrote: the City's tax, which is labeled 'Income Tax,' is exactly that. It cannot be restyled as an 'excise tax' on the ... 'privileges' of receiving revenue in Seattle or choosing to live in Seattle."

Within minutes after Judge Ruhl issued his 27-page decision, one viewed as thorough and comprehensive, and well beyond the detail that at least appellant attorneys expected, the office of Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said they will be appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court.  

Since there was no instant need for the city attorney's office (there was no indication that the statement came from Holmes rather than from someone in the office late day who was asked by the media, "are you going to appeal?"), it surprised many that there was no indication of intent to consult the soon-to-be mayor.

It may come as a surprise, and irritant, to members of the city council that they have no say in the decision of whether or not to appeal. That decision rests on the mayor and the city attorney, but it's impossible to envision the decision would be made without consultation between the two, and approval from the mayor.

From the time the measure was passed, there was acknowledgement that the goal was to get the issue of an income tax before a state supreme court that, proponents hope, will ignore court rules as well as its own precedents that a net income tax is unconstitutional and quickly seize this case as an opportunity to open the door for a state income tax.

So despite the fact that constitutionality of the city's income tax was not part of Judge Ruhl's deliberations and decision, the forces viewing the income tax as vital to correcting a regressive state tax system are hoping the court will decide the case offers an opportunity too good to pass up, regardless of its rules.

Durkan is universally regarded as a smart and courageous attorney. Deciding what to do about an appeal of Ruhl's decision will give her opportunity to call on both qualities.
The reality is that continuing to needlessly stoke the fuels of anger over economic distinctions that the "tax the rich" mantra has brought is of little long-term value to the city.  

Any law school graduate knows that in Washington State, among many states, a losing party can ask the supreme court to review the lower court decision, but unless some glaring error leaps out, the high court procedure is to tell an appellant "take your issue to the court of appeals."  

So since Durkan is well aware that there is little likelihood the state high court would agree to bypass the state appellate court and grant direct review, she would have to be pandering to the city council's loudest voices to seek supreme court review, at the expense of smoothing over the Seattle political divide. And perhaps enlist a broad coalition in a goal of working to change the state's tax structure, a goal that will require support across the political spectrum.

There is no doubt that Durkan will clash with the council's loudest voices, or more accurately loudest mouth, since Kshama Sawant prides herself on not having any Republican friends and Durkan has friends across the political spectrum, including a brother who is a Republican lobbyist.

Intriguingly, as it relates to any mayoral concern about smooth relations, members of the city council didn't wait for Durkan to shed her "Mayor-Elect" title before they thoughtlessly planned to cut her budget by $1 million, or 17 percent, in their search for dollars after the idea of a business head tax failed.

Fortunately, Mayor Tim Burgess, whose 71 days as interim mayor end when Durkan is sworn in, convinced the council it was unfair to the incoming mayor to cut such a chunk out of her budget, so they decided trim by about $500,000 the amount they were diverting. It's difficult not to be amused by the attack on a part of the mayor's budget given the fact the legislative branch budget is about twice the size of the mayor's but no one suggested that a portion come from both the mayor's and the council's budgets.

Oh, and it's amusing also that the amount being cut from the mayor' budget is about what the city has agreed to spend for legal expenses defending Sawant in suits for defamation over unfortunate outbursts in two separate cases.

But as to the point about Durkan helping define herself in how she decides on seeking a direct appeal, or any appeal on behalf of an obviously illegal Seattle statute.

She is likely to find broad support, including many in the business community who opposed the city tax because it was enacted despite it being obviously illegal, who would join in a legitimate campaign to change what most agree is a regressive state tax system.

But to begin such a broad-support effort she first has to move the City Council away from its goal of punishing the wealthy and instead focus on enlisting all segments of the population in creating a fair state tax structure.

Continue reading

Autonomous vehicles will drive WA state's future

acars_banner

There is a growing conviction among influential leaders in Washington state, ranging from the governor through local elected officials and business executives, that autonomous vehicles will play a key role in this state's transportation future.

If 2016 was the year of the train in the Puget Sound area with discussion and debate over the nation's most expensive transit ballot measure ever, the $54 billion ST-3 to build a regional rail infrastructure over the next 25 years, then 2017 could be the year of the first meaningful steps toward a future of reinvented highway vehicles.  

But the first actual, autonomous "wheels on the road" project in this state could get underway in early 2018 in the City of SeaTac, the municipality that includes Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  

But as meaningful steps toward what I'll call - aCars, or even what's being referred to as semi-autonomous vehicles that will have a driver at the ready, begin emerging, proponents will need to develop a plan to deal with the inevitable pushback from the disruptive idea of vehicles without drivers.

Gov. Jay Inslee, whose support will be essential to overcome the objections that emerge, set the stage for a strong focus on autonomous vehicles when he issued an executive order in June to put the state behind autonomous vehicle development efforts, including allowing companies to test drive them on state roads.

A month later his office welcomed the robot vehicle from a Virginia company that was spun out from Virginia Tech after it was safely driven, as a semi-autonomous vehicle, across the country, and through Washington state without incident.

Nothing is as far along in this state as the Virginia company, called Torc Robotics, but a couple of noteworthy efforts are underway that could attract increasing attention, and not just in this state. One is in Bellevue, where a focus on autonomous vans (we can refer to them as A-vans,), paid for without public subsidy, is occurring. The other is in the City of SeaTac, which would be a project logical by the proximity of airport-related businesses and the amount of traffic they and the airport itself generate.

The focus on autonomous multi-passenger vans is the brainchild of Steve Marshall, manager of the City of Bellevue's Transportation Technology Partnership, and Charles Collins, who has been active in exploring transportation and commute issues since his days as the second director of King County Metro in the late 1970s. Collins created the King County vanpool system that has become the most successful in the country.

The transportation experience and expertise of Marshall and Collins have probably put them at the peak of the pyramid from which to envision what lies ahead for autonomous vehicles. And from that perspective, both see a van-focused future of autonomous vehicles

Before taking the Bellevue post on May 1, Marshall was executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES). He has more than 30 years of experience working on energy and transportation issues, including serving as chief outside legal counsel to Puget Sound Power & Light as a partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie.  

It is CATES, now under the executive leadership of John Niles who replaced Marshall, that is helping guide the City of SeaTac through evaluation of a program employing driverless shuttle mini-buses or vans on City of SeaTac roads, providing supplementary service between Sea-Tac Airport and hotel locations.

Another example of what could emerge City of SeaTac activities would be small, quiet, electric shuttles connecting light rail stations and transit centers with residential neighborhoods.

Niles told me he is putting together recommendations that he calls an Action Plan that, once accepted by the staff of the SeaTac City Council, likely by the end of the year, would be available for review by citizens to make it ready for action by the council, probably in January.  

The effort by the City of SeaTac, which has charted for itself the goal of becoming a Center for Municipal Excellence, has gotten advance approval by both South Transit and Metro.

Approval by the SeaTac council would, as Niles explains it, be "steps on how to proceed on automated first-last mile small vehicle, driver-less automated transit for citizens to use to reach light rail stations, employment sites within City of SeaTac, and community centers and services."

"There will probably be a phase one pilot serving only part of the City," he added. "I am aiming for deployment of proven technology already tested elsewhere and proved to be safe."

In a comment directed at those concerned about driverless vehicles, Niles offered that the way his robotic micro-transit vehicles would work in SeaTac is with a control center keeping an eye out for trouble and dispatching help when needed."

Niles' comment addressed one of the key roadblocks to be overcome by the forces arrayed on behalf of an autonomous future, the concern of many drivers about the pervasive presence of vehicles without a driver. But other hurdles are already emerging in other states, concerns that will play out here, from forces restless about lost jobs like cab or truck drivers, auto repair and service businesses who won't have cars to repair and even insurance companies fearful of providing a product eventually not needed.

Part of the pushback could come from Sound Transit's board which is bound to see the early hints of buyers' remorse on the part of voters who approved ST-3 in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties last November grow as new unexpected costs emerge while development of the autonomous van fleet takes hold.

By 2022, almost two decades before ST-3's rail network is completed, clues to its obsolescence will be offered as that's the year the first van test for 100 autonomous vehicles is scheduled, likely opening the way for thousands of such vehicles on area highways, without public cost.

And the betting is that those who can summon a van to take them where they want to go for a small fee will likely not opt to queue up for a train, thus further diminishing the modest passenger-use expectations of Sound Transit.

Those whose reaction to ST-3 was a "how can they vote for this? Do they really think it's required of those who care about the environment to vote to create a network of trains?" may well react with amusement to the cost of ST-3 beyond just dollars becomes clear.

The fact that was never shared with voters but will be shared as the reality sets in is that the greenhouse gas generated over the years of construction will never be paid back by people riding a train rather than driving or being conveyed in a vehicle.

An intriguing development for emerging use of autonomous vehicles is the fact that Kemper Freeman's Kemper Development Co. and its Bellevue Square expects to begin next year offering customers, many assumedly loaded with purchases, an autonomous-vehicle ride back to their cars parked on site.

Marshall offers a whimsical view of past as prologue to public acceptance of autonomous travel. One is the case of his grandfather who, after working his Palouse fields on horseback all day, tied the reins to the saddle horn and slumped over to sleep on the way home, confident his horse could "drive" itself back to the barn.

Plus he offers the example of elevators. When the years of people greeting the operator as they entered for the ride up began to give way to elevators without operators, there were some passengers who fought off discomfort. Then automatic elevators became universal, to the point when, if a person is operating it, some people may wonder "is something wrong with this elevator?"

Continue reading

NOT 'some white dude' - The New Face of Biotech in Washington

LEENNaws_banner

As M3 Biotechnology Inc. launches clinical trials on its therapy for Alzheimer's that is expected to halt the progression of, or even reverse, the disease, it's a satisfying development for those who have been believers in the role of the company and its CEO at the leading edge of the new field of regenerative medicine.

So when Melinda Gates lamented, before a large audience of women in computing, that the technology industry was dominated by a "sea of white dudes," one group who heard the message could be forgiven if its members, mostly men but including a couple of talented women, shared a knowing smile.  

Leen KawasLeen KawasThey knew that, despite the general accuracy of Melinda Gates comments, the CEO who has become the face of biotech in this state and even beyond is a 32-year-old woman from Jordan named Leen Kawas.  

And although several members of the group were key women investors guided in part by the fact Kawas is a woman, the male supporters seemed far more focused on their belief in her ability to get the drug to commercialization then concerned about gender.

Thus Kawas was the beneficiary of believers who came to her aid as investors, mentors, and supporters because they were convinced that she had the ability to bring to market a drug that would alter the course of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and perhaps reverse them.

The manner in which Kawas, in just under four years as president and CEO of M3 Biotechnology Inc., took the young company from the lab toward commercialization and has ascended to virtually the top of the visibility pyramid in her industry is storybook material. But it's a satisfying example to many who are convinced that no doors remain closed to those who refuse to accept rejection.

When I first met Kawas in late summer of 2013, she had yet to know anyone in Seattle and was merely the chief scientist for M3, a company still immersed in the labs at Washington State University, where its drug was undergoing animal trials to test its seeming ability to spur cellular regrowth. That fact naturally led to neurological testing since if a drug could regrow cells, its future could be assured and, before long, Kawas had her name on several of the patents for the drug.

And soon she was tapped to be CEO by the two WSU profs who then owned the majority of the company because it was still in their labs. So the second time we visited was soon after that when she was seeking help in meeting people who might invest in a promising young company and its young CEO.  

When she returned to Seattle, she shared that the other 63 were all males and her reaction in discussing that fact in an almost dismissive manner was an early indication of how committed she was to overcome the pushback and discrimination and comfortably stand up to it and seek to change it.

As we began a process over the next several months of meeting those who could either invest or introduce us to investors, I told her, partly to see how she would handle the pressure, that I would get the first meeting for her to make her presentation but it would be in her hands for people to agree to a second meeting with us.

Early on we had a meeting in Orange County, CA, with Richard Sudek, perhaps the most important angel-investment leader in Southern California at the time as chair of the largest angel investment group in the country, the five-county Tech Coast Angels. I was hopeful he would be impressed enough to offer Kawas some advice on raising money.

When she finished her presentation, he said, to my pleasant surprise: "I would be happy to be a business advisor for you."

It was in the fall of 2014 that she had her media debut with an impressive interview with Q13 anchor Marne Hughes in which those watching at the studio said she looked like she had grown up on camera.


What followed were major features in local business publications as well as major visibility in the annual report of Association of Washington Business and Life Science Washington as well as participation in an array of panels on the industry as well as membership on Gov. Jay Inslee's committee on life sciences.
 
By then she had outgrown the need for introductions, except for an occasional desire by a major investor to get a friend into the mix.
 
And some of the funds she corralled told their own story of her growing reputation, as she got two grants from the state's Life Science Discovery Fund totaling $750,000, an impressive $1.7 million from the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Fund and a half million dollars from the Dolby Family Fund.
 
So now almost exactly four years on, M3 has raised more than $17 million from investors who represent a most impressive array of seasoned leaders, both men, and women, from a mix of the world of life science and enthused investors and some who simply have a commitment to changing the world of degenerative disease. And the company has begun initial human trials from which the future will be shaped.
 
And meanwhile, biotech giants are lurking in the wings to reach out to seek major stakes in the young company at the first sign of success.
 
As an aside, M3 is the first company to emerge from either of the state's research universities to reach clinical trials, a fact viewed by WSU as a major biotech coup.
 
So what stirred the interest of investors?

As Biotech icon Bruce Montgomery replied when I asked him why he had become a supporter of Kawas' and a key investor in M3 and a board member, he replied: "It frankly didn't occur to me to dwell on whether she was female or non-caucasian. I understood the science of what she was hoping to achieve and felt she had the ability to achieve it."

It was a sentiment echoed by investor and M3 board, chair John Fluke, no stranger to investing in startup entrepreneurs.
 
Jim Warjone, now retired from his roles as chairman and CEO of Port Blakely Companies, told me some months after deciding to invest, following one of what I refer to as an array of examples of fate helping guide Kawas on her road to success, "She's the smartest person I have ever met."
 
The touch of fate with Warjone came when Kawas was about to present to a group of which I was a member at Suncadia in August of 2015 and I went out to get some coffee, encountering Warjone, whom I hadn't seen in several years, in the lobby of the resort.
 
"What are you doing here?" he asked and when I told him, he asked if he could sit in, which he did, so he was among the half-dozen who heard her presentation, and was one of the two who decided to invest.
 
Michael Nassirian, longtime Microsoft top executive, who watched his father, a business executive in Persia, wither mentally and die of Alzheimer's, told me his goal was to do something "to change the magnitude of that disease. And when I heard Leen present and went to the M3 site and studied their successful step, I believed she and her company could provide a solution to Alzheimer's."
 
As to the women investors, who make no apologies for their financial support of Kawas because she is a female as well as talented CEO, I have found each to be amazing talents attracted to invest in the CEO and becoming her friend.
 
I asked Amber Caska, who has guided family funds for Paul Allen's Vulcan and Alphabet chair Eric Schmidt and is now president and chief operating officer of women-entrepreneur focused Portfolia in the Bay Area, why she had invested in M3.
 
"When I met her at a JPM Morgan Bio Conference dinner, I did further diligence and figured that not only was she extremely intelligent and driven, M3 was a compelling investment opportunity and backed by a very reputable science team and board. I knew that M3 was onto something incredible and I wanted to support her along the way."
 
Carol Criner, who has served as CEO and turnaround executive at an array of companies in various industries, was the second person I introduced Kawas to. When I asked her about her decision to invest, she said:
 
"I was more personally invested in supporting her as a young, female CEO.  I became a business advisor to Leen, both because of your encouragement, and that I was fueled by wanting to see Leen succeed.," Criner said.
 
"Now that she is a celebrity CEO, it's hard to imagine this all began a few short years ago," said Criner. "I witnessed her face the headwinds of giant egos and sexism with resilience. She never gave-up. Her success largely silenced a lot of vocal-doubters. I love it.  She's amazing and strong."
 
 In discussing her much smaller sector of the burgeoning tech industry in the Puget Sound area, I once overheard her compelling reply to a young entrepreneur quizzing her on why it was necessary to distinguish high tech from biotech sectors, as long as tech jobs were coming to the area in large numbers.
 
"Technology is the field that will help us build new devices to be held in the hand. Biotech will help us build a new hand," she replied. "Which would you prefer to be part of helping develop as an industry?"
Continue reading

New pro basketball league footprint will include area cities

napb_banner2

Yakima will field a team in the fledgling North American Premier Basketball League (NAPB) meaning the newest professional basketball league will have at least two Northwest cities in its footprint when the circuit begins play in January, and another closer to Seattle could be announced soon.

Yakima, where the SunKings once dominated the old Continental Basketball Association, will field a team, joining six other cities ranging from Vancouver, B.C., to Albany and Rochester, NY that will have teams in the new league.

David Magley, a one-time basketball academic all-American at Kansas who has been traveling the country nonstop for the past few months seeking to create the new league by selling a mix of memories and opportunity, made the announcement of the Yakima ownership Tuesday. And he says he may soon have an owner in a city that could assuage some of the Seattle area's hunger for professional men's basketball pending the likely return of the NBA to Seattle somewhere in the future.

The team will be owned by Yakima businessman and orchardist Jaime Campos, who quickly announced a major coup with the landing of Paul Woolpert as Coach and General Manager, bringing home the coach who landed three of Yakima's five CBA titles while becoming the fifth winningest coach in the CBA.

Magley's presentation, being capitalized on in the 60 cities around the country that once had professional basketball teams, including a few that are former NBA cities, is apparently having an impact since in addition to the seven, possibly eight, that begin play in January, Magley has a half dozen others queuing up to join in 2019.

The lineup of cities for the launch of the league, in addition to Yakima, includes former NBA cities Vancouver, Kansas City and Rochester, NY, plus Albany, NY, Akron, OH, Owensboro, KY.

Albany and Yakima were once leading teams in the CBA, with both cities producing large crowds and healthy profits for the teams, before the impact of the Great Recession drove the league to cease operations in 2009. Thus the names Patroons, which the Albany team carried for more than three decades, and the SunKings, which Yakima's CBA carried during its existence, will be resurrected.

Magley, 56, was commissioner of the National Basketball League of Canada until a year ago and says the idea of a new pro basketball league began taking shape in early summer when he began searching for a partner and began pursuing potential ownership in various cities across the country and Canada.

Unique to this league is the fact that players will be expected to spend time with kids and in, which, with the pervasiveness of social media are expected to bring the teams close to their communities.

Campos says he was attracted to owning the Yakima team partly by Magley's explaining that the league's emphasis on "community impact" will have its players active in the school systems delivering messages about self-worth, anti-bullying, dangers of drugs and alcohol and value of staying in school.

The way Campo, 41, whose electrical contracting company is his primary business, put it: "I wanted to do something for kids in the community and that's not a cliché."
"I hope not to lose too much money as we get this thing going," he added. "The in four or five years we can put together a competitive team."

Campos added that if things go well, he might want to have two teams in Northern Mexico in 2019, which Magley notes would give the league a true North American footprint with teams from Canada to Mexico since several Canadian cities have expressed interest in having a team for the 2019 season.

Continue reading

Fate dealing losing hand to Seattle income tax advocates

tax_banner

Fate seems to be dealing a losing hand to proponents of a state income tax, given events that have unfolded behind the scenes with the lawsuits filed since the Seattle City Council enacted a tax on higher-income residents as a strategy to reach the State Supreme Court with the issue.

Their best hope now to achieve their goal is to be dealt a joker wild card by those on the other side who have sued to overturn the tax on the statutory grounds that the city violated the 1984 state law that specifically prohibits cities and counties from imposing a net income tax. 

The wild card could be handed to tax advocates because some of those suing the city seem tempted to turn it into a political issue that could be the key to unintentionally attracting the state's highest court.

From the outset of a campaign flatly touted by council members and their cheering supporters as an effort to "tax the rich," the goal of tax advocates has been to get the State Supreme Court to review the 84-year-old decision that a net income tax violates the state constitution.

Whether that campaign can move ahead may well be decided on November 27, the date set yesterday by King County Superior Court Judge John R. Ruhl for him to hear the motions by attorneys representing plaintiffs in three lawsuits filed against the city.

Matched by those whose rhetoric is "we need to tax the greedy rich" is the equally heated commentary of those who oppose any tax and particularly taxes on the wealthy, who feel they are already overtaxed. The anger of the latter was evident in the comment made in private by one of the attorneys that their purpose is to "kill the income tax and drive a stake through its heart so it never comes back alive."

As Matt Davis, attorney for Seattle investment advisor Michael Kunath observed: "What was supposed to be a purely legal exercise has devolved into the latest battlefield in the fight between two groups who have no hesitation about forcing their viewpoints on everyone else."

Kunath's suit was the first of the three and thus was the one assigned Judge Ruhl by lottery and it will be Davis' motion for a summary judgement against the city tax that will be heard on November 17 with the motions by attorneys for The Freedom Foundation and the Opportunity for All Coalition to also be heard then.

The first indication of the unanticipated challenges facing the city came when Kunath's suit, filed minutes after Mayor Ed Murray signed the tax into law following City Council passage, noted that the council fouled up in its maneuver to pass a tax that wouldn't be viewed as violating state law.

The council members passed what they intended to be a tax on gross income rather than net income, but they chose the amount on Line 22 on the federal tax form as the basis for each filer's taxable income and that line is described in various IRS documents as a "net" income tax line, which Davis highlighted in his suit.

The other suits included that point in their briefs against the Seattle City Council for its passage of a tax on individuals with income over $250,000 and joint-filing income of more than $500,000, They all indicate they want Judge Ruhl to merely rule that the city violated state law.

But the attorneys, including two retired State Supreme Court justices, have been told by Judge Ruhl that they must be prepared to argue the constitutionality as well as the statutory issue, although he said at the Wednesday meeting with attorneys that he intends to rule first on the statutory question. 

What that would mean is the issue of whether the income tax violates what's known as the "Uniformity Clause," a constitutional requirement that all property be taxed equally, wouldn't come up if he rules against the city.


Thus the only way the issue of the Uniformity Clause would become part of the case is if he were to find the city income tax was legal. 

Then attorneys for the three suits could use the Uniformity Clause as a backup issue and raise it for a discussion that would reach the high court.

The sense of those who want a state income tax is that a dramatically more liberal high court than the 1933 court that ruled that income was property and thus required to be taxed equally would throw out its own rules and reverse that decision, opting to throw out its own rules and eight decades of decisions by the high court supporting the 1933 decision.

The random selection of Ruhl to preside over the superior court deliberations on the case also has to be viewed as less than ideal for the city since he is considered by attorneys in this case as the best judge for them because his qualifications make it less likely he would be influenced by the political rhetoric surrounding this case. He is rated as "exceptionally well qualified" by various organizations, including the King County Bar Association.

Finally, Ruhl's decision to separate the statutory question of whether the city broke state law from the constitutional issue will make it more difficult for Seattle to get before the Supreme Court with the constitutional question.

 "Uniformity" in this case means the city's imposition of no tax on income under $250,000 and 2.25 percent for income above that.

The concern of those who fear that it's risky to turn this into a political issue rather than a statutory one are concerned about statements like that from Matt McIlwain of Madrona Venture Partners that "In defeating the city income tax, we can help maintain a system of opportunity and job creation for innovators and workers."

In addition, the complaint from the Opportunity for All Coalition of which McIlwain is a spokesman goes to great length in its suit to provide anecdotes of people being taxed on selling their homes or their businesses who are not wealthy but merely average Seattle citizens who will be injured by the tax.

Those are all political considerations.

Davis' motion makes clear at the outset that he and Kunath don't view this as a political issue but a simple statutory question. The other suits appear tempted to want to make political statements with their suits.

A long line of decisions in the decades since that 1933 decision that income is property and thus a tax on it must thus meet the constitutional requirement that property has to be taxed equally have cited that decision to reverse ideas like calling an income tax an excise tax or imposing an income tax on real estate transactions. 

And confronting those who hope the court will merely overturn that decision is the rule known as Constitutional avoidance, which says the court must make every effort to avoid interpreting the Constitution if it can deal with the statutes. But in the end, the high court can do whatever it wants.

The concern of those who don't want to tempt a Supreme Court likely to be sensitive to the views of those who want to repair an admittedly regressive tax structure with an income tax know the court will be searching for any argument that opens the door to consider the merits and wisdom of the tax.

Anyone who argues that the tax is unfair, unneeded or unreasonable is handing the Supreme Court exactly what it needs. And should the Supreme Court take up the issue and decide in favor of income-tax advocates, it's a good bet that soon thereafter, a legislature that now needs only a simple majority and no voter support because of Supreme Court action to throw out a decades-old precedent, will enact such a tax.

And history will honor or revile, depending on which segment of the population we are looking at, the organization or individual who made that come about.
Continue reading

Personal reflections on Mike Lowry, passionate believer in people

Personal reflections on Mike Lowry, passionate believer in people
It would be laughable, in this era of unbridgeable political divides, to envision an elected official who nurtured his image as "liberal Democrat" while priding himself on being "the congressman from Boeing." But that was Mike Lowry, the former governor who died early Monday after suffering a stroke.

Because of our 50-year friendship, beginning when he headed the staff of the State Senate Ways & Means Committee and I was the Capital reporter for UPI, this Harp will be more of a personal reflection on Lowry than a catalogue of who he was and what he did.

He was this state's epitome of the progressive politician for 40 years. He believed in the environment and cared deeply about the needs of farm workers, causes he was still involved with at the time of his death at the age of 78.

Lowry was an urban politician proud of his rural roots, growing up in the Palouse community of St. John, and his education at Washington State University.

It was in his desire to get things done for job-creating big business that he was unusual for a Democrat. He brought his political power to work on behalf of Boeing and other large companies because he felt it was the state's role to help companies that provided high-paying jobs.

Thus while being viewed by small business as the enemy, he was generally held in high regard by big business, including Boeing, which quietly supported him in his successful bid for governor in 1992.

It was soon after the election that Lowry called me to meet for breakfast to talk about possible candidates to head the state department of trade and economic development . I thought it would be cool to meet with the governor-elect at the WAC, maybe Rainier Club or even the Four Seasons.
 
Then I learned that his favorite breakfast spot was the Denny's on I-405 north of Renton. Nothing too fancy for Lowry and thus it became the place we met regularly over the years.

Lowry wanted to know what I thought of Mike Fitzgerald as a potential director of the agency. Because Fitzgerald was a friend and a fellow Montanan who got his economic development start working personally, right out of college, for the governor, I said "he'd be great."

Fitzgerald, now president and CEO of the Denver South Economic Development Partnership, worked directly for or with nine governors during his years in economic development and told me in a telephone conversation this week: "I have never worked for anyone who loved their state more than he loved Washington state and its citizens."

"He understood and could articulate the role of the triple bottom line of successfully balancing the economy, the social agenda and environmental considerations," Fitzgerald said, noting that Lowry "was personally involved in Washington landing two of the biggest tech-industry coups in the country at that time."

He was referring to Lowry ensuring the state took the steps necessary, including things like new freeway interchanges and face to face meetings, to land Taiwan Semiconductor in Clark County and an Intel plant in southern Pierce County.

The antipathy of small business, particularly small-business organizations, was cemented from the outset of Lowry's single term as the state's chief executive (he didn't seek a second term partly because of the publicity that surrounded a sexual harassment action by a former press aide, which was settled).

That antipathy was particularly true after he guided legislative enactment of a statewide system of health insurance with premiums based on ability to pay, a law that put a lot of cost pressure on small businesses.

It was the anger of small business toward Lowry over the healthcare law, in addition to is his guiding the 1993 Legislature to double the business & occupation tax for service businesses, that led to my most amusing memory of him. I had sought his partnership with The Puget Sound Business Journal to put on a Governor's Conference on Small Business.

He agreed but as small business antagonism toward Lowry intensified, I grew concerned about the kind of animosity he might face when he appeared at the conference. So I met with him the afternoon before to express my concern and urge him, when he opened the conference the following morning, to just thank the business people for being on hand and wait until the end of the day to make positive comments about things he was doing for business.

"Good advice," he said as we sat in his office going over the agenda. So I was stunned when he opened the conference doing exactly what I had advised him against.

As a result he was pummeled throughout the day by negative comments about him, directly or by innuendo, from the array of speakers from the various sessions.

I was worried when he left quickly without attending the closing-session cocktail party. And more so the next day when I received an anxious call from the person in his office assigned to work with me on the conference.

"I am very worried because he called his entire staff together this morning, expressed his anger and said 'I am going to find out who was responsible for the embarrassment I suffered,'" the staff member told me.

I contacted Lowry and asked if we could meet in his Seattle office to review the conference.

As we sat down facing each other, I said: "Governor, I get the impression you are unhappy about the conference. If there was a problem, there are only two people who could be responsible. You are looking at one, and you see the other one in the mirror."

He flipped his arm up as one of those ear-to-ear smiles spread across his face and he said: "I don't have time to worry about yesterday's irritations, so don't sweat it."

Don Brunell, retired president of Association of Washington Business who often crossed swords with Lowry and other Democratic governors on business issues, told me not holding a grudge was a Lowry trademark.

Brunell offered the comment: "Lowry never personalized anything. He could blow his stack at you one day and be genuinely smiling the next."

Lowry served 10 years as the state's 7th district congressman and twice ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Dan Evans in a special election in 1983, and to Slade Gorton in 1988. before returning to the political wars to run for governor in 1992. He won, defeating state Attorney General Ken Eikenberry to win his lone term.

After his '88 loss to Gorton, he returned to Washington state along with Dan Evans, who had decided not to seek re-election, and the two joined together to initiate the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC).

"Since we came from very different political backgrounds we were soon dubbed the 'Odd Couple,' Evans recalled in an email to me. "I think we both enjoyed the title and both have seen a huge result from that small beginning."

"We were competitors, but far more importantly were colleagues, partners and good friends," Evans added.

Brunell praised Lowry as an elected official with integrity. "While most of them promised not to raise taxes and sometimes wound up doing so, Lowry said he would only raise taxes as a last resort." He did raise the B&O tax dramatically in 1993 but cut back on half the increase two years later.

Said Evans: There was never any question what Mike believed and he worked tirelessly on issues, always with peace, people and progress in mind. We lost a first rate political leader, a passionate believer in people, and I lost a good friend."

Fitzgerald said Lowry's favorite personal saying, repeated half a dozen times in private meetings with him, was from Thomas Jefferson, who talked of a goal of seeking to create "an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity."
Continue reading

Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few puts to rest axiom that 'nice guys finish last'

Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few puts to rest axiom that 'nice guys finish last'

One of the most noteworthy accomplishments of Gonzaga coach Mark Few in his team's inexorable march toward the NCAA National Championship game, despite falling short in the finale, may have been the destruction of the oft-quoted axiom that "nice guys finish last."

That "nice guys" comment obviously isn't a reference to the angry Bulldog mascot, Spike. But it is the agreed-on description of Few, who grew up in a small Oregon town, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and who didn't leave behind the lessons of his youth.

Despite the fierce competitiveness    of his players that has been on display for the nation to see during the past few weeks, they are described by a GU trustee who has spent an extensive amount of time with them as "selfless, disciplined, family."

Gonzaga and Few fell short of their quest for college basketball's pinnacle in their Mondaynight loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game and the pain will burn for a time for the coach, his players and fans.

But his nice-guy trait was on display, despite the pain of the loss, in the post-game nationally televised interview when Few declined the opportunity to blame the referees for the loss with a couple of calls generally viewed as in error, saying instead "the referees were excellent."

And as Jack McCann, a longtime GU trustee who offered me the above characteristics of the team, said to me in a phone conversation before the final game, "nothing should diminish the joy of the journey that this season represented." He meant not just for Few and his team but also for the family of supporters, fans and boosters.

Indeed McCann, a GU trustee since 1997 and founder of the prominent South King County land-development firm, the Jack McCann Co, and other trustees and close supporters have proven themselves part of the GU family over the years.

That includes hosting the coaches and players at their vacation homes, including getaways to Cabo to McCann's beach home and the neighboring Cabo home of Mike Patterson, prominent Seattle attorney and also a trustee. But Few doesn't use Cabo trips as a recruiting tool!

And McCann was quick to sign off in the early 2000s on the idea the players should travel on charter rather than commercial flights before that idea was on the radar screen of most schools.

As John Stone, a successful Spokane developer who came up with the idea of offering his private plane and convinced two others to offer theirs on away-game trips, explained to me in our phone conversation "it became a way to make sure the players were back home in their beds that night and in their classrooms the next day. They are student athletes of course, not just athletes."

McCann was among the trustees and friends who over the years that followed that first private-plane travel year put up the $100,000 apiece to both pay for the flights and allow the supporters to travel on the plane with the team and have seats near the bench for those away games. By the mid-2000s, that was the routine for travel.

And it was Stone who pointed out the importance of the "family" role played by the Greater Spokane community in chipping in $6 million of the $26 million it took to build McCarthey Athletic Center, the 6,000-seat facility on the campus, competed in 2004, that opposing teams dread visiting. 

The community involvement was in the form of a "seat license" plan where members of the Spokane community committed to $4,000 to $5,000 a year to license certain seats in "the kennel" where the seats come right down to the floor.

Few's Oregon upbringing in Creswell a stone's throw from Eugene and the fact he graduated from the University of Oregon created one of the untold human-interest stories that media usually thrive on but someone missed this time.

With Gonzaga and Oregon in the Final Four, I was surprised there wasn't a lot of focus, at least some focus, on the possibility that if the Bulldogs and Ducks each won the first game, Few would have been trying to beat his alma mater.

In fact, another story is the possibility that Few might have been coaching Oregon rather than Gonzaga in this Final Four, but that story is known only in a close circle.

The conversation in basketball circles, and among Gonzaga supporters, over the years of NCAA tournament appearances, has been when would Few be attracted to a bigger opportunity.

After all, having been at Gonzaga since joining the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1989, becoming full-time assistant a year later and becoming head coach after the school's Cinderella 1999 drive to the Elite Eight, Few's tenure has been an unprecedented loyalty to what has been viewed as a mid-level program.

The fact is that McCann, sharing the story with surprising candor, was personally aware of a full-court press Oregon's athletic director and famous alum Phil Knight put on Few several years ago to return to his alma mater. But the effort was unsuccessful in attracting him away from Gonzaga.

Supporters are aware the time may come when Few is attracted to a new challenge at another university, but everyone now knows it won't be the lure of a more respected basketball program.

Only nine schools have matched Gonzaga's 2017 record of 37 victories in a season. And Few is one of a handful of coaches to achieve 500 victories, all at the once lightly regarded Spokane school.

Few and his wife, Marcy, have three boys and a girl and in perhaps the most significant example of the importance of family to him is the story of when Few was once asked by a sports writer if the start and end of each basketball season represented the most exciting and most downer times each year.

He replied that the most exciting time each year was when his kids got out of school and he had a whole summer to spend with them and the most disappointing time was when they returned to school in the fall. So much for the appeal of fame and glory.

Gonzaga's desire for sports recognition actually dates back almost a century to 1920 when the Spokane school, with fewer than 200 students, embarked on a quixotic quest for football fame by hiring a big-time coach, Gus Dorais, who had teamed with Knute Rockne at Notre Dame to perfect the forward pass.

It was a quest, I once referred to it in a Harp some years ago, as an "Ozymandian delusion," that brought Gonzaga an improbable post-season appearance two years later against West Virginia in a 21-13 Christmas Day 1922 loss that earned Gonzaga top visibility in the next day's New York Times sports section.

That was the only moment of national football glory for Gonzaga, though the program continued until the outbreak of World War II in 1941 when it was discontinued and never brought back. During its 20-year run, Gonzaga football produced some players who became nationally prominent and one, Ray Flaherty, went on to become, for a time, the most successful coach in the National Football League in the late '30s with the Washington Redskins.

Gonzaga basketball, however, is secure now as a program nationally respected. And the "Nice Guy" and "family" characteristics engendered by Few, the school and the supporters may well become the most envied part of what Gonzaga has brought to college basketball.

McCann refers to it as "a magic carpet ride" for all the segments of the "family."
                            ----------- 

 (The above column is a personal column since my wife and I are graduates of Gonzaga and some of those I quote, Stone and Patterson, are not only friends but attended the same high school, Gonzaga Prep, and same grade school, St. Aloysius, where Few's sister is law is now principal. It doesn't get any more incestuous than that!) 

Continue reading

Mariners' 2017 opening day recalls '92 opener and its import

Mariners' 2017 opening day recalls '92 opener and its import

When the Seattle Mariners take the field for their home opener April 10, there will be at least some in the crowd who will recall that it was opening day 25 years ago when there was finally a cautious optimism that the uncertainty about the future of the franchise had been resolved. A team of local owners had been assembled, buttressed by a Japanese businessman devoted to Seattle, awaiting hoped-for approval from Major League Baseball.

And it's on occasions like a quarter-century anniversary of a major event that those involved in creating outcomes like the saving of a major league franchise for Seattle find that little-known facts of the story come to the forefront of memory for sharing.

Thus this Harp will be dedicated to a collection of several such stories related to that Mariners' accomplishment that made opening day 1992 special for not just the 56,000 fans on hand but also for supporters across the region.

There was an appropriate major celebration at Safeco Field last May to recognize Slade Gorton for his essential role as a U.S, Senator in finding local buyers for the Mariners in 1991 after then-owner Jeff Smulyan announced he was planning to sell the team, triggering a clause giving 120 days to find local owners.

It was in December of 1991 that Gorton learned that his effort to convince Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to invest, not as a baseball fan but to repay the community that he felt had helped his company become successful, had paid off.

And it was January 23 of 1992 that the announcement of the group of local investors to be named the Baseball Club of Seattle and led by the Japanese billionaire would buy the team to keep it in Seattle.

But it would be two months beyond opening day in 1992 before The MLB ownership committee would recommend approval of the purchase of the team by the Baseball Club of Seattle. So, as Randy Adamack, Mariner Senior Vice President for Communications, noted to me "While there was more optimism that April about the franchise staying here, the approval issue still had people holding their collective breath."

The 120-day clause and the local-owners search provide interesting memories for those most closely involved, and retired Mariners president Chuck Armstrong shared a couple of them in a telephone conversation this week.

Armstrong was attorney and advisor for George Argyros, the Southern California businessman who had purchased the Mariners in 1981 from the original ownership team, and Armstrong served his first stint as president of the Mariners when Argyros sent him up from Southern California a couple of years later.

The 120-day provision had actually been inserted in 1985 when Argyros and King County Executive Randy Revelle were negotiating a change in the Kingdome lease and Argyros suggested it as a "closer" to get county council approval.

Armstrong recalls that the reason for suggesting the provision was that Argyros "didn't want to go down in history as the guy who sold to a distant owner and thus let the Mariners leave town without providing time to find local owners."

"He was okay with a new owner living elsewhere, as long as he didn't move the team," he added.

Armstrong recalls "George never gets credit for that 120-day clause, but he had learned that nothing happens in Seattle, because of the endless focus on process, until things are in extremis and when something reaches that point the community would respond."

Bur Argyros did become basically loathed in Seattle in 1987 when he sought to buy the San Diego Padres to be closer to his Southern California home after the death of owner Ray Kroc. armstrong notes that it was the suggestion of Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's, who said he would find someone to buy the Mariners.

Then in 1989 came the offer from Smulyan that set in motion everything that followed.

Armstrong was also involved in trying to help sell the Japanese ownership to MLB, remembering that he called his friend, George W.Bush, then managing partner of the Texas Rangers, explained the challenge and asked if his father, President Bush, might be interested in helping with the issue.

"One day the phone rang and a woman said 'the president is calling.' I asked 'President of what?' and she said a little icily, how about President of the United States.'"

Armstrong said it turned out that Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent had worked for the elder Bush in the oil fields and they had remained friends.

"I can't honestly tell you what, if any, role the president took in our issue, though both Bushes indicated they had no problem with a Japanese owner" chuckled Armstrong, who as the only one of the new local ownership who knew anything about running a baseball team was brought back as president on July 1, 1992. He retired three years ago.

One of the most interesting stories and one that I've felt should be shared ever since I first heard it, is how new CEO and majority owner John Stanton had wished with all his might to be part of the ownership team in 1992, but told me some years ago "I didn't have the money."

For those who might find that startling or amusing, remember that wireless pioneer Stanton had recently departed McCaw Cellular with Craig McCaw's blessing to launch Stanton Communications with his wife, Theresa Gillespie, and they had sunk all their capital into that venture. The company would in 1994 become Western Wireless, which went public in1996 and spun off VoiceStream Wireless in 1999.

"We had the opportunity to invest in 1992 and passed because we were funding payroll for about 100 employees out of our personal checking account," Stanton emailed me this week.  "In 2000 we had the opportunity to buy John McCaw's interest in the team. And we have been involved since then."

McCaw's 1992 investment had represented a substantial piece of the original commitment by the 17 owners and it wasn't until he decided to sell that he shared the fact he had only invested for the sake of community and that he hadn't really been a baseball fan.

The final recollection truly little known, except for those closely involved with the effort to save the Mariners, is of the legal battle in which Seattle attorney Arthur Harrigan won the right for local ownership to be sought.

I wrote last year, as Gorton's key contribution 25 years earlier was being celebrated, about the role played by Harrigan, whose firm of Calfo Harrigan Leyh and Eakes got into the battle because it represented King County and Smulyan was seeking to abandon the county-owned Kingdome.

The venue for resolving the future of the Seattle Mariners franchise was what amounted to an arbitration hearing before Arthur Andersen, the national accounting firm agreed to by both sides to decide some key issues relating to the lease and the team.

Since it wasn't a court process, which would have gotten large visibility for the battle between attorneys, Harrigan's maneuvering over the meaning of wording in Smulyan's contract regarding an attendance provision and whether it triggered the 120-day clause got little visibility, and is thus little remembered.


Harrigan's argued interpretation of the lease-requirement wording was accepted by the Andersen firm, so Smulyan was required to give the four-month opportunity for a local buyer to be sought.

Of perhaps equal importance, Harrigan successfully argued that there should be a local value lower than the open-market value. 

The accounting firm agreed and set a "stay-in-Seattle" valuation at $100 million, rather than the national open-market value of $125 million that it had determined.

That created the opportunity for Gorton and others leading the effort to keep the team in Seattle to find a local buyer for $100 million, rather than $125 million, within four months. And that led to Nintendo.

John Ellis, the widely respected, retiring CEO of Puget Sound Power & Light, was a token partner, along with retiring Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz, to add business respectability to the wealthy but lesser-known Microsoft and McCaw Cellular entrepreneurs group.

Ellis was picked to lead the group's effort to gain baseball's approval, becoming managing general partner, eventually becoming CEO and guiding the team through the rest of the '90s and setting the stage for the team's 2001 MLB record-tying 116 victories.

The 1992 "opening night" that is actually best remembered was the owner-change celebration on July 16, 1992, billed as a second opening night.
Continue reading

Alaska's Cuba service recalls Russia Far East venture

15.00

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE It was logical and appropriate that the first air carrier to connect the Western United States to Cuba should be Alaska Airlines, given that carving out new frontiers and seeking new challenges has been the culture of the airline over its eight-plus decades.

“As we kick off our 85th anniversary year, the inauguration of Cuba service marks the latest in some fascinating twists and turns to our route network,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska’s senior vice president for external relations.

Indeed the Cuba service launch brought back particular memories of Alaska’s far-out decision a quarter century ago to begin regular service to the Russian Far East, seizing what was then a thawing of relations between the two countries and the emergence of the Seattle area as a key player in that relationship that was beginning to verge on friendship.

Back in 1991, Seattle had already hosted the Goodwill Games competition between the U.S. and Russia, and business relations were being pursued. So Alaska launched summer service that year to Magadan, a sister city to Anchorage, and Khabarovsk, described as a European-style interior city that was the commercial and industrial hub for Russia’s Far East.

Part of the U.S.-Russia relations that emerged prompted creation of the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation FRAEC), whose then-president Carol Vipperman recalled in an email exchange this week “the Alaska flights to the Russian Far East were very meaningful to both sides.”

The challenges of some of Alaska’s early flights, eventually extending to five cities in the rugged Far East of Russia, could provide comedy-script material, but also confirmed the pioneering spirit of Alaska’s people.

The inaugural flight to Magadan, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, turned up the fact the airport had no de-icing service. It was reported the pilot rounded up every bottle of vodka available and sprayed it on the wings with a garden hose.

And when Alaska launched service to Petropavlovsk, the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula, as the inaugural flight loaded with dignitaries was about to land, ground authorities told the pilot he did not have landing rights so the Alaska jet was forced to turn around and return to Anchorage.

Alaska was forced to end the service, on which the airline insisted it made money over the nearly a decade of doing business, when the Russian economy collapsed in 1998.

Vipperman recalls being on the next-to-last flight, with long-time Secretary of State Ralph Munro and some Alaska officials.

“We had come from a bilateral meeting, and at the Kamchatka airport we were taken off the plane to meet with the governor of Kamchatka and other officials so that we could talk about the impact the closure would have on their region,” she recalled in our email exchange. “While we sipped vodka, the plane sat on the tarmac waiting for us to come back.”

“I was personally sad to see the service to the Russian Far East end,” she added.

Alaska’s innovative outreach to the Russian Far East actually went back almost two decades earlier, in the early ‘70s, when the still young carrier began charter service to the Soviet Union’s Siberia as a result of what have been described as “secret negotiations” between the airline and Soviet Authorities.

When the U.S. Department of State learned of the deal, it decided not to block the plan, indicating it didn’t want to create a negative response from the Soviet Union. It might also be assumed the agency wanted to avoid a negative response from Washington State’s two U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, then among the Senate’s most powerful members.

I emailed Sprague for some thoughts on the service that began in the ‘90s.

“The service to the Russian Far East was really something,” said Sprague, who was then with an Anchorage-based regional airlines. “It still amazes me to look at the map and think how far away from home base we were flying our old MD-80s for that service.”

Sprague noted Alaska’s long history of connecting communities, with the Russian Far East and now Cuba as key pieces, but also including launch of service to resort cities in Mexico, Hawaii, then points to the East Coast and Midwest.

The latest, of course, being the merger with Virgin America, which will create Alaska linkage of all the major cities on the West Coast.

“Our various moves have been good for the company, but we also like to think they have been good for the communities we serve,” Sprague said.

An example of serving communities is the fact that, despite filling it planes with passengers destined for popular vacation and business destinations, the airline continues to serve a special role in the infrastructure of the state where it was born as an airline connecting remote locations.

As Sprague noted: “We are proud that we still serve 19 points within the state of Alaska, only three of which are connected to the road system.”

 

Continue reading

Baseler reflects on Ste. Michelle 50th anniversary

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Far-flung Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, guides what he proudly refers to as the winery “string of pearls” from an office in the French-style chateau that houses what may be the most visited winery in the world and reflects on the 50th anniversary of the brand.

Baseler, who joined Ste. Michelle as marketing director in 1984, marked 15 years as president and CEO last year with a couple of key accomplishments. One was the special award Ste. Michelle Wine Estates received in November in London when it was presented the trophy as 2016 “United States Wine Producer of the Year” in the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

The other was adding the first Sonoma winery, Patz & Hall, to what Baseler proudly refers to as the “string of pearls” to describe the collection of estate wineries that stretch across Washington and into Oregon and California. The string is the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates company that holds the “pearls.”

While Chateau Ste. Michelle, on its 87-acre estate, is the state’s largest winery and has revenues in 2015 of $692 million and profit of $152 million, the role Baseler and his company have played in helping build Washington’s wine industry to more than 850 wineries valued at more than $10 billion is noteworthy.

And he thinks the Ste. Michelle numbers will double in the next decade, adding that he is “bullish on Washington because of both quality and prices,” adding “it’s hard to find a quality wine in the Napa Valley for less than $100 a bottle.”

In additiom, he notes that “America os going from beer drinking to wine drinking, particularly true with millennials.

The birth of the Ste. Michelle brand provides an amusing tale of the value of competition. There was a time when only the wine produced in this state could legally be sold at retail outlets. It was possible to go to the state Liquor Control Board and order a case of wine from California, which would then arrive several days later.

Washington wines were produced by an all-but-forgotten winemaker called American Wine Growers, which produced almost entirely fortified sweet wines, sometimes affectionately referred to as “rot gut.”

Then in 1967, The California Wine Bill was introduced in the Legislature with the goal of permitting wines from California and elsewhere to be sold at retail outlets. Opponents lamented loudly that it would kill the Washington wine industry and proponents countered “let’s hope so.”

But there were others who understood that competition would benefit all and AWG, that same 1967 landmark year for the industry, began a new line of premium vinifera wines under the name Ste. Michelle and contracted with renowned wine expert Andre Tchelischeff to guide production. Within two years, the wines were receiving “good marks.”

In 1972, a group of investors headed by Wally Opdyke bought out AWG and formed a company under the name Ste. Michelle Vintners, which became successful, soon to be bought out by American Tobacco Co., which was acquired by Altria Group in 2009.

Baseler’s business strategy in guiding his company’s growth is to retain the legacy and reputation of acquired properties and allow them to continue to operate somewhat autonomously.

“We’ve observed other big wine companies that have grown and consolidated their operations, and basically destroyed what they’ve acquired as the wineries lose their flair, their personality and their legacy,” Baseler said.

Another part of Baseler’s strategy is to foster the growth of the industry in this state by viewing the hundreds of wineries as family rather than competitors, expressing at one point the conviction that Ste. Michelle Vineyards needs all the other wineries for the state to have an industry.

An example of that support was In 2004, when a rare arctic storm wiped out the grape harvest for a dozen Walla Walla wineries, Baseler stepped up to sell his grapes to keep the wineries from facing ruin. As Baseler was quoted in a profile in Seattle Business magazine a few years ago, “We could have used the grapes, but this was more important.”

It was a key example of his realizing that without the smaller players scattered across the state producing quality wines in a growing number of wine regions (known as AVAs), a Ste. Michelle standing alone would be diminished.

But Baseler’s focus has not merely been on supporting wineries in this state, but also on bringing quality wineries in other regions under the Ste. Michelle umbrella, or string.

I once remarked, somewhat apologetically, to Baseler at an event where we were discussing wines, naturally, that my favorite wine was Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Erath Vineyard in Oregon. He smiled and replied “That’s ok, we own Erath.”

But the relationships extend beyond this country with partnerships with two quality European vintners. A partnership with Tuscany’s Piero antinori led to creation of Col Solare, which  Baseler describes as “the most beautiful winery anywhere.” Eroica Reisling is the result of a partnership with Mosel’s Ernst Loosen, a logical relationship for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s role as the world’s leading producer of Reisling wine.

Baseler has demonstrated that his commitment as a business leader is not just to the industry but also to the state, though he laments when pressed that the state makes little financial effort to support the industry.

In 2002, Baseler was approached about establishing a scholarship fund to support high-achieving, under-represented minority undergraduates at University of Washington. The story goes that Baselder said “no.” Then after a pause, the WSU alum and Regen at the Pullman school said: “but I’ll do it for UW and WSU.”

The program expanded in 2009 to include students attending any college or university in the state. Since inception, more than 100 scholarships totaling more than $3 million have been awarded. Students in the program, which is administered by the College Success Foundation, have a graduation rate of 85-to-90 percent.

Among recent achievements, Baseler led fundraising efforts for a Wine Science Center, a 40,000-square foot, high-tech research and education facility that was opened in June of 2015. The Center, located next to the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus, was a $23 million project developed as a public-private partnership.

Baseler’s comment about the Woodinville winery being “the most visited winery in the world” is supported by the fact that visitors to the winery total more than 250,000 but when attendance at the array of concerts held on the grounds is added in, the total reach about half a million a year.

Ste. Michelle has several events planned throughout the year to celebrate the anniversary, with  large public celebration at the Chateau over the Labor Day weekend, serving as a capstone of sorts as well as a grand re-opening of a major renovation that will be undertaken this year.

Continue reading

52°F

Seattle

Mostly Cloudy

Humidity: 63%

Wind: 14 mph

  • 24 Mar 2016 52°F 42°F
  • 25 Mar 2016 54°F 40°F
Banner 468 x 60 px