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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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Ex-congressman Baird's ethics quest could gain national focus after 60 Minutes probe

Former Washington Congressman Brian Baird's long quest to bring a small note of integrity to the dysfunctional legislative body from which he retired a year ago has finally, with a 60 Minutes episode titled "Honest Graft," gotten a bit of national visibility for an idea whose time has long since come.

 

And it's possible that, as irate citizens across the country seek ways to express their frustration at the implications of the abject failure of the so-called supercommittee to come up with any agreement, Baird's idea may become a focal point for citizen action.

 

During the last three of his six terms representing the state's 3rd District, Democrat Baird sought unsuccessfully to pass, or even just gather support for, what he called the Stock Act. It would have barred members of Congress from doing stock transactions in areas they regulate, in essence, prohibiting their investing in a manner that those in the real world call Insider Trading.

 

For ordinary citizens, reaction to Baird's proposal would be a laughable "well, of course." But in a place whose mantra is "the rules we make for you don't apply to us," seeking to force action by the lawmakers on one small, self-imposed ethical constraint could become a rallying point for a fed-up public.

 

The thrust of the CBS segment that aired this month is that lawmakers often do make stock purchases and trades in the very fields they regulate. While ordinary citizens could be jailed for engaging in the kind of investment shenanigans that those in Congress involve themselves in, there's not even an ethical concern among lawmakers.

 

Baird may be able to gain far more visibility as a former lawmaker than he could as a member of Congress and the hope has to be that this first shot across the bow of Congress will echo down the months of the coming election year.

 

And a sure way to take this worthwhile campaign viral is to share in every possible social-media fashion 60 Minutes reporter Steve Croft's questioning of current House Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi at their respective news conferences.

 

For viewers of the ineptitude with which both Boehner and Pelosi tried to answer Croft's questions about whether their investment practices were at least conflicts of interest, the thought that had to occur was "Who elects these people?" The answer, unfortunately, is people like us elect them. Shame on us.

 

Boehner, for example, bought a bunch of health-care-related stock during the health-care reform debate of 2009. And when Boehner's efforts to kill the so called "public option" succeeded, those stocks skyrocketed.

 

Pelosi, meanwhile, had gotten in on a series of lucrative stock Initial Public Offerings. One of those involved an enormous number of Visa shares that Pelosi purchased while she was working on legislation that would have hurt credit card companies. Two days after purchasing the stock at $44 a share, and after the bill was put on long-term hold, Pelosi's stock shot up to $64 a share.

 

Ideally, members of Congress will be pressed, in any news conference or appearance before business organizations or other groups in the coming election season, to explain why they fail to support the legislative concept for which Baird sought support in Congress.

 

Fortunately, Pelosi's struggles with the simple task of answering a question from the 60 Minutes reporter have become pervasive on YouTube, and should remain so down through election year as a backdrop to those questions posed to members of Congress seeking to stay in office. It should be watched by millions, and shared with millions more.

 

At a time when we're already dealing with "pledges" from candidates for political office, a much more logical pledge to press upon candidates than a no-taxes pact is: "Will you support the current version of Stock Act legislation in the House next year?"

 

And no candidate forsaking Congress for a run for state office should escape being forced to explain to their hoped-for statewide constituency why they lacked an interest in imposing ethical conduct at the most basic level on their fellow lawmakers and themselves by supporting Baird's efforts.

 

In this state, that would mean the question would be posed to Rep. Jay Inslee, who is running for governor. And why shouldn't he be pressed to answer that question? Hopefully, it will be posed early on in the campaign. 

 

Baird's 3rd District successor, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, announced earlier this month that she is signing on as a co-sponsor of a bill similar to Baird's plan, this one called "Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act," sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Timothy Welz.

 

A total of 92 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including Washington Democrats Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott, though not Inslee.

 

But those wise in the way Congress works, or more accurately doesn't work, will note that the bill was assigned by House Leadership to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, about as distant from a subcommittee that has anything to do with ethics, finances or investments as they could get.

 

Howard Schultz' quixotic appeal to CEOs to halt donations to re-election campaigns of members of Congress because of their inability to progress beyond stalemate is a bit impractical because only candidates that CEO types contribute to would be impacted. Candidates supported by groups like unions and trial attorneys would actually benefit if Schultz' call drew CEO response.

 

But a call for denying donations to any member of Congress who doesn't pledge to support the specific legislation that Baird long championed might have a whole different outcome in terms of response from those seeking to remain in Congress. And since the demand for such a pledge would be coming from Democrat and Republican voters alike, it might be the seed that could grow into a renewed sense that there are things that those from all parts of the political spectrum can actually agree upon.

 

And it would thus represent a small step toward acceptability for a legislative body that badly needs to be viewed by the American public as not just trustworthy, but simply relevant.

 

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Once-obscure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for area's economy

The political struggle in Moses Lake over the cost and management of its irrigation district is a microcosm of the conflict going on in cities, towns and taxing districts across the country between supporters of growth and progress, and those who seek to constrain government and contain spending

 

But because major companies have begun to focus attention on the area due to things like transportation access, cheap electric rates and low property costs, economic development opportunities are now on the minds of community leaders. Thus the obscure political contest has taken on new importance for the region's 45,000 residents.

 

The climax of the battle for the political affections of the owners of the 9,000 parcels of property in the Moses Lake Irrigation and Reclamation District has become, for the past couple of years, the ironically timed Christmas-season election for a seat on the district's three-member board.

 

The annual mid-December election had drawn little attention, despite the importance of the district's work in the clean-up of the 6,500-acre lake, until a year ago when two prominent local political types ran against each other to claim an open seat.

 

Ron Covey, 64, Moses Lake city councilman for 14 years, including six as mayor, sought to fill the seat to ensure continuation of the district's dredging and environmental clean-up, and the $1 per $1,000 property tax to fund the irrigation district's $1.5 million annual budget. Covey is also the current president of the Grant County Economic Development Council.

 

Mick Hansen, 71, a former Democratic state representative whose uncle and aunt were both state senators from the region, sought the board seat, arguing that the property-tax could be cut in half and questioned the importance of some of the clean-up projects.

 

The outcome of the race was important to the future of the district because if Covey won, as he did, barely, in a race where the approximately 11,000 votes cast represented a turnout about 10 times the norm, it would ensure a 2-1 majority supportive of current district funding and direction.

 

The election-night results gave Covey a 61-39 percent edge. But that majority had shrunk to 2 percent by the time absentee ballots, assumed to have been largely retirees wintering elsewhere or elderly residents, were counted.

 

A Hansen victory would have created a board majority focused on a hard look at both the board's direction and the operations of its full-time director, hired in 2007, and the staff.

Hansen is running again this year, challenging an incumbent board member.

 

The evidence of no love lost between Covey and Hansen was Columbia Basin Herald business reporter Lynne Lynch's quote of Covey during an appearance in last year's race, when he said he would not "cut the budget and gut the lake." He also suggested Hansen would bring "arrogant, ill-conceived good ole boy ideas."

 

The district's activities focus on the environmental challenges the lake has faced. More than 50,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulation annually have clogged channels on the lake, degraded water quality and led to excess plant growth, which district clean-up and dredging efforts have sought to counteract.

 

Now Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County have begun to attract economic-development attention from after almost half a century of struggling to survive and grow following the early '60s closure of Larson Air Force Base, which had been the justification for the community's existence.

 

And that increased attention has brought considerable focus on the lake itself as part of the appeal of the area to real and prospective new residents and businesses.

 

The new-found attention has included BMW, lured to Moses Lake by low-cost and sustainable power, to create a new plant in a joint venture with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers where parts for the automaker's new high-tech electric car will be manufactured. Plus nearby Quincy has attracted datacenter developments, including Microsoft's new, fully modular center, as well as other like Yahoo and Sabey Corp.

 

Inexpensive power is a key lure. But former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, who has both business and non-profit involvements in the Moses Lake area, sees "a lot of positive business factors at work" in the area,

 

"From foreign-trade zone, to all modes of transportation, and low electric rates, relatively low property costs, good workforce and good regulatory climate in the local government, there's real economy-development appeal at work there," Lowry said, adding that the lake itself is a vital aspect of the region's appeal.

 

Pat Jones, new executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, puts it this way: "The lake is an important part of the community at a lot of different levels."

 

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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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Spokane mom's autistic children provided lessons that prepared her for new venture

With her three autistic children as her "classroom" for the past decade, Laura Kasbar learned the unique ways autistic kids learn. Now she is ready to launch a business whose video-based web platform will offer parents, schools and health therapists a new tool to harness that process of learning for a dramatically growing number of kids with autism.

 

Kasbar, a Spokane mother of six, including twins Max, who was severely autistic, and Anastasia, who was moderately so, says the new company, called GemIIni (named for the twins), will launch in the first quarter of 2012.

 

Funding for the launch has come from the Spokane Angel Alliance and its leader, Tom Simpson, and an unusual commitment by Spokane's Inland Imaging and its CEO.

 

It was 11 years ago, Kasbar recalls, "that I walked into the tv room and saw all my kids lined up on the couch watching television and I couldn't really tell which were the autistic ones."

 

"At that time, the conventional wisdom was that the television should be off if autistic kids were around. But that experience was the catalyst that made me realize I should be using video to teach them," she said.

 

So over the next decade, with the help of her oldest son, Nicolas, who was on the autism spectrum as Asburgers, she developed the method embodied in the video. Her special focus was to help Max, who doctors told her, when he was four, would never talk.  She says he is now mainstreamed in school and excels in class without an aide. 

 

Now 14 and featured on a GemIIni video, Max has recently tested as having a college-level reading ability, a dramatic advance from his original diagnosis of being a lifelong non-verbal autistic. 

 

Kasbar says all three of her once-autistic children have now been removed from the autism diagnosis.

 

When Kasbar decided earlier this year she and her husband, Brian, were ready to launch the company, she was introduced to Simpson, who formerly guided a Spokane-based venture fund and now oversees the Spokane angel group.

 

Simpson set up a presentation for the start-up company a few months ago and wound up investing, as did some of the angel-group members. The presentation also drew the interest of Steve Duvoisin, Inland Imaging's CEO, who personally invested as well as bringing his company aboard. 

 

"I briefed our 60 physicians after the presentation and their attitude was: 'You mean we can make an investment that will help a lot of kids and could also provide a return on the investment?'," Duvoisin recalled. "It was an easy decision, but I emphasize their focus was on how much help this would be to the kids."

 

The number of children on the autistic spectrum and who thus need the learning help amounts to one in 38, and is growing at an amazing 17 percent per year.

 

"Autism is a very genetic disorder with an environmental trigger," she explained. "There are things in the environment that are the triggers for those genetically predisposed to autism."

 

The range of the autism spectrum, she says, "suggests a range of susceptibility to the triggers."

 

Explaining the role of video as a learning tool for autistic kids, Kasbar noted that the autistic avoid looking directly at a speaker's face and thus lose much of the normal learning process of mimicking articulation in speech. But, she says, they are not uncomfortable looking on-screen personalities in the eye and watching their faces.

 

"I've spent thousands of hours working with families in Europe and in the U.S. over the past three years to perfect the method," she said.

 

She says Nicolas, now 24, and a salsa instructor, as well as a coach of sales teams, helped with actual interaction between the program and the child, adding:"It was very helpful having someone on the autism spectrum work to refine the program."

 

Materials prepared for the marketing of GemIIni indicate it will use a subscription-based model with online computer-based training platform that Kasbar hopes to sell to families with autistic children, but also school districts, independent therapists and treatment centers and health insurance companies.

 

The business model provides for a charge of  $36 per student monthly, a fee that she says testing and surveys indicate is acceptable to parents, who would thus have a way to leverage home-time into therapy time at a reasonable cost.

 

She estimates the total special-needs market, including children with language-related disorders, at 7.8 million. Her target is to reach 50,000 families the first year.

 

"I expect that the company will become a leading provider of therapies for children with autism and other learning disorders," said Simpson, who is providing office space and consults with the Kasbars on marketing and development issues.

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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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Support grows for proposals to create jobs by easing some of investor protections

The mounting pressure on Congress and the Obama Administration to find some job-creating ideas to jumpstart the ailing economy is stirring growing interest in a couple of Congressional proposals that would lessen investor protections for the sake of allowing businesses more growth opportunities.

 

One proposal, already filed as a House bill by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-AZ, with the intent of accelerating the growth of younger companies, would suspend for most newly public companies what many view as a costly and troublesome provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

 

Quayle's proposal would allow a much greater number of public companies to opt out of Sarbanes Oxley Section 404, which requires public companies to disclose the scope and adequacy of their internal-controls structure. The measure would raise the current $75 million market-value threshold for reporting to $1 billion.

 

The other proposal would help entrepreneurial and start-up companies, many currently  hamstrung in their ability to attract growth capital, to reach large numbers of investors for limited amounts of money via the internet in what's being called crowd-fund investing.

 

The proposals have come to center stage only in the last couple of weeks. And each has attracted growing support from those who contend the measures are vital to the goal of job creation. And each is also starting to stir opposition from those who question the idea of setting aside shareholder and investor protections.

 

Each proposal merits an in-depth look and thus in this first of two columns we'll examine the discussions surrounding Quayle's bill, the support being gathered for it and the comments of those expressing concerns.

 

Next week's column will focus on the crowd-funding proposal, including a look at those backing it and the concern it is stirring from many angel-investor leaders, particularly those up and down the West Coast.

 

Quayle's bill would allow public companies with market valuations below $1 billion to opt out of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404 for the first 10 years after going public. The original Sarbanes-Oxley Act was amended in last year's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Protection and Consumer Protection Act to create the under-$75 million exemption.

 

Quayle and supporters of his measure, including the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, contend that the costs for complying with the requirements of this section of Sarbanes-Oxley can exceed $1 million for new companies and can cost them up to $20 million in loss of valuation.

 

Quayle's measure is close to a plan outlined by the Kauffman Foundation a few months ago as "a set of non-partisan ideas to jump-start the ailing U.S. economy and increase job creation by accelerating the growth of startups and young businesses."

 

Kauffman, the nation's largest non-profit foundation focused on entrepreneurs, noted that the role high-growth startups play is vital to assure U.S. economic strength.

 

"Virtually all of the growth in U.S. jobs has been driven by the formation of firms less than five years old, and these new firms have been disproportionately responsible for commercializing the cutting-edge innovations that characterize modern life," the Foundation said.

 

"I believe this bill is an important step as we  try to increase the number of companies that go public in the United States," said Robert Litan, Kauffman's vice president for research and policy. "The ability to raise capital in public markets will be essential as new companies create the jobs required to put Americans back to work."

 

One of the most pervasively visible proponents of both lowering the regulatory barriers for newly public companies and the proposal for crowd-fund investing is a Miami, FL, entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise, who has testified before Congress about both. He was co-founder of a company called Flavorx, which added flavors to medicine, that went public and was later sold.

 

In 2006, he was among those decrying what he called the "unintended consequences of Sarbanes-Oxley on small businesses," saying that meeting 404's requirements "ate up 14 percent of our net income."

 

But among those urging caution is former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn E. Turner, who said in an e-mail that contained the subject line "Short Memories:" "Clearly people have forgotten the hundreds of billions in dollars of losses investors suffered during the corporate financial reporting frauds, and the tens of thousands of jobs lost."

 

Neil McReynolds, a corporate-governance consultant in Seattle, said that while the original Sarbanes-Oxley requirements created some real cost and regulatory problems for smaller public companies, the changes brought about by the Dodd-Frank bill corrected some of those.

 

McReynolds, who has been a member of a number of boards of private companies and consulted with boards of public companies, said that while extending the exemption to $75 million cap companies, as Dodd-Frank did, made sense, "extending the exemption to $1 billion companies may be a bit of a stretch." He added that "there's still value in disclosure and internal controls."

 

Sharon Philpott, managing partner of national accounting firm BDO's Seattle practice, agreed, saying her firm supports the positions of the CFA Institute, Center for Quality Audit and the Council of Institutional Investors, who have all urged caution against further exemptions from Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

In the end, success or failure of expanding the exemption for internal controls may hinge on whether the pressure for jobs trumps the pressure to protect shareholders and investors.

 

 

 

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Jon Huntsman's Senior Games dream 25 years on

Jon Huntsman Sr.'s vision was that an event called the World Senior Games, even if held in a remote corner of Southwest Utah, would eventually draw thousands of what others might dismiss as the elderly for the chance to recreate and compete with their peers.

So it is that 25 years after their founding that the games this year will attract about 10,000 seniors who, over the next two weeks, will compete in everything from track and field to badminton, pickelball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the competitors are in their 90s.

john and karen huntsman
Jon and Karen Hunstman from Games website

The event, under Huntsman's fathering, has grown over its quarter century into a major tourism attraction in Southern Utah and thus a major opportunity to expose the now rapidly growing city of St. George during its most appealing fall season. You can't drive far beyond the red rock mesas, what is referred to locally as "color country," that edge the city without encountering the aspens that by early October stretch north and east toward various national and state parks.

I've been drawn to the games because of the "world" name since I first heard of them in 2003 and made up my mind to compete in the 100 and 200 meters in my age group once I learned that they weren't really world games. That means some competitors really were world class while others like me, who weren't, could still compete, and that's always been the magic draw.

In that 2003 competition, I managed to finish sixth in both the 100 and 200 out of fields of 24 in each event. But the reality was that those at the front of the pack in both events were, in fact, world class and thus it was satisfying just to be in the same race in which I could see them in the distance.

The two guys way out ahead that day were a Southern California pharmacist named Gary Sims, who had never run competitively until he was 50, and John Ross, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was European champion in both events earlier that same year. They've been dueling it out each year since. Sims holds the meet record for both the 100 and 200 in the 70-74 age group and Ross the meet record for the 100 in the 60-64 age group.

I'm entered as a competitor in the games again this year in the 100 meters for the 70-74 age group and will be looking forward to seeing Sims and Ross in the distance ahead of me as the race unfolds, a bit of familiarity that's important since age brings brushes with the unfamiliar as part of its baggage

There's a special import for me with this year's trip to St. George in that it's an outgrowth of my new-found commitment to do today what I might yesterday have put off until tomorrow. Successful recovery from colon cancer surgery in late May while various friends are battling the disease, or have lost their battles, prompts my new "do it today" mantra.

The games were actually founded by a dreamer named John Morgan Jr. who envisioned and named the games.

 Two years later, Huntsman, founder and CEO of what would eventually be the world's largest chemicals company, caught the vision of the event's potential for the region and the state. Thus he and his wife, Karen, became the major sponsor of what has ever since been the Huntsman World Senior Games.

The visitors the event has attracted each fall may well have had at least something to do with the dramatic growth of the area, with St, George becoming one of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas from 1990 on, now with a population of 75,000.

And in that growth and advances in the economy may be the lesson of Huntsman's vision that other states and regions might emulate.

Huntsman, 73, has stepped up to executive chairman of what is now a publicly traded (as of 2005) $9 billion world's largest chemicals company with 12,000 employees. But he and Karen still open each year's Senior Games event, where the participants now number in the thousands each October.

Huntsman is, of course, the father of the former Utah governor, China ambassador and a Republican presidential hopeful, Jon Huntsman Jr.

All of which brings me to the final point about the Jon and Karen Huntsman and their commitments to community in Utah.

It was after his surgery for prostate cancer some 15 years ago that Huntsman set out to establish a world-class cancer research and treatment center, a dream he's pleased to say is now realized with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital in Salt Lake City.

The Huntsman family continues to serve as principal benefactors and fundraisers for the Huntsman Cancer Institute with what he describes as "the ultimate goal" of eradicating the most challenging forms of cancer.

And it's on that final note about the Huntsmans' commitment to community and overcoming as great a challenge as cancer that I sense a common thread in their commitments and the commitments of those who travel to St. George each year to participate and compete.

The producer of a recent movie on the senior games said: "What drew us to the senior games was the positivity. These people have an unparalleled zeal for life. When you're 90 and 100 years old and have endured life's challenges and still have such a positive attitude, it's beyond impressive. We felt it was worth a film."

In a sense the producer summed up in his way what's become my view: Life is a race to be appreciated for the joy of participation and whether world class -- or a bit slower --making in to the finish line ahead of cancer, or any other physical or mental obstacle, is really the sweetest race to win.

 

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Before basketball at Gonzaga there was football

Before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was football. And just as a Stockton (John) in the backcourt in the mid-80s set the stage for the Spokane school's subsequent hoop prominence, a Stockton (Houston) in the backfield 60 years earlier keyed a 20-year quest in which Gonzaga sought to use football as the key to fame.
 
Appearances by Gonzaga University basketball teams in NCAA post-season play have become almost the norm over the past decade. But the Bulldogs also made a post-season appearance on the football field, a Christmas-day game in 1922 that was intended to match Gonzaga against Notre Dame.
 
The idea for the long-ago game was a promoter's dream: a post-season contest between the Notre Dame team of Knute Rockne and the Gonzaga team coached by Charles E. "Gus" Dorais, the man who had quarterbacked the Irish while Rockne played end.
 
This is the story of how that game came about and the effect the outcome had over the next two turbulent decades as Gonzaga pursued a dream of gridiron glory, only to become entangled in a morass that threatened financial ruin for the tiny school.
 
Gonzaga, like Notre Dame, had been calling itself the fighting Irish for years. In fact, the nickname bulldogs was used for the first time in 1921.
 
According to legend, the decision on whether Rockne or Dorais would be hired as Notre Dame's new head coach came down to a coin flip that Rockne won. Dorais stayed a year as the assistant then headed to Spokane in 1920, sought out by the little Jesuit school to fulfill its dream of national prominence through football, starting with hiring a "dream" coach.
 
Dorais spent his first couple of seasons beginning to build a reputation among Northwest schools. Then in 1922, Houston Stockton, John's grandfather, who had been singled out for All-American honorable mention as a freshman at St. Mary's in Oakland the previous year, transferred to Gonzaga.
 
Stockton quickly began to make his mark as a Bulldog. In the home opener in a new $100,000 stadium before an overflow crowd of 5,600, Stockton turned in a stunning single-game performance, scoring six touchdowns and kicking 10 conversions for 46 points as Gonzaga beat Wyoming, 77-0.
 
The Bulldogs beat College of Puget Sound, 34-0, Montana, 37-6, and Montana State, 12-0, in a Bozeman snowstorm. They lost 10-7 to Washington State College on a late-game field goal.
 
Then came the official invitation from San Diego officials for the dream-game clash between Rockne's and Dorais' teams. But Notre Dame was upset by Nebraska in its season finale and Rockne decided to turn down the invitation.
 
 So West Virginia, undefeated in the 1922 season, victor over the Pittsburgh team that went to the Rose Bowl that season and a club generally regarded as one of the two or three best in the nation, was invited instead.
 
The odds against Gonzaga were overwhelming and the way the game unfolded bore that out as West Virginia took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Then Gonzaga found itself. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns, one by Stockton, in 10 minutes. With two minutes to go, Stockton (who rushed for 110 yards that final quarter) found future Gonzaga coach Mike Pecarovich in the end zone. But he dropped the ball. Final score: West Virginia 21, Gonzaga 13.
 
The game got an eight-column headline in the New York Times sports pages as Gonzaga won praise from coast to coast, lauded as "the Notre Dame of the West." A Chicago Tribune sports writer enthused that "West Virginia won. But it wasn't a Christmas present. Pulling a bone from an angry bulldog is not like getting a toy drum from Santa Claus."
 
Dorais and Stockton teamed for two more years, including an undefeated 1924 season. Then Stockton moved on to professional ball with the Frankfort Yellowjackets, predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Dorais headed for the University of Detroit where he spent most of his coaching career.
 
A number of great players followed Stockton as Gonzaga stars. George (Automatic) Karamatic, who won a place on the 1936 All-America team, and Tony Canadeo, known as the "Grey Ghost of Gonzaga" for his prematurely gray hair, went on in pro ball to set the Green Bay Packers single-season rushing record.
 
Ray Flaherty, a member of the 1924 undefeated team, subsequently starred with the New York Giants for nearly a decade. Then he became coach of the Washington Redskins, guiding them to two NFL titles and five division titles, with his teams always including a cadre of Gonzaga players whom Flaherty routinely drafted..
 
The outbreak of war ended Gonzaga's football program, one that was doomed to end at some point, having cost the school $60,000 in its worst year and providing less than a dime of profit in the best.
 
 It's been almost seven decades now since the blue-and-white uniforms were packed away for the last time. And 60 years since the dilapidated wooden grandstands of Gonzaga Stadium were razed to make room for the Crosby Library.
 
 Old photographs carefully packed away in the basement of the Administration Building are the last tangible reminders of the days when Gonzaga pursued the mirage of big-time college football fame.
 
Gonzaga was among the first of a score of little colleges, mostly private schools, around the West to pursue an Ozymandian delusion that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.
 
Down through the years, sports has inevitably been the vehicle that colleges and universities have sought to use to gain prominence and recognition, as Seattle University is doing in seeking to restore the one-time luster of big-time basketball at the school.
 
For Gonzaga, basketball has indeed brought the prominence and financial success that football was never destined to do. But football will always be the ghost in Gonzaga's closet.
 
(The above is gleaned from old files compiled from long-ago newspaper clippings by a then-Gonzaga student who imagined that a book on Gonzaga football awaited in his journalistic future. But all that really came of that research was an article in the student newspaper in the mid-60s that stirred a short-lived student movement to revive football. The effort died quickly when the then-basketball coach advised a skeptical administration that the cost of athletic tape alone would be $20,000.)

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