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Business Roundup | Alcoa restart? Tariffs give hope, but it’s too early to tell

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Alcoa workers in Wenatchee start the process of making aluminum in 2005.

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Alcoa restart? Tariffs give hope, but it’s too early to tell

WENATCHEE — It’s too early to know if tariffs imposed on aluminum imports announced March 8 by President Donald Trump could stir interest in restarting Alcoa Wenatchee Works, mothballed since January 2016.

But there’s hope this could start the conversation,” said Kelley Woodard, president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council, an umbrella group representing 350 workers in five unions. “We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

Just over two years ago, Alcoa curtailed operations at its 66-year-old Wenatchee smelter when aluminum prices declined on the global market. That cost nearly 430 workers their jobs. At the time, economists noted that Alcoa’s high wages — some annual salaries topping $100,000 — poured over $60 million annually into the Wenatchee Valley economy.

Trump’s proclamation last month to impose tariffs of 10 percent on imported aluminum — except for shipments from trade allies Canada and Mexico — garnered praise from Alcoa’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.

Alcoa welcomes the Administration’s decision to exempt Canada and Mexico from tariffs on aluminum imports, and calls for additional exemptions for the remaining fair trading partners,” said an Alcoa press release. “We encourage the Administration to work with allies to address the critical issue of Chinese overcapacity.”

The president also imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel. The tariffs on both aluminum and steel were set to take effect 15 days after the initial announcement.

The Chelan County PUD has issued no official statement on the tariffs or hope of an Alcoa restart in Wenatchee. Last year, the PUD deferred for one year a $67 million power contract charge that was due in June. If the plant does not restart by this coming June, the company will be required to pay the charge.

Woodard said current prices for aluminum — hovering at between $2,100 and $2,200 per metric ton — are $900 higher per ton than when the Wenatchee smelter went dark. The higher prices and new tariffs are “part of a lot of good stuff” recently affecting the aluminum market, he said.

Basically, we’ve been under attack from China (metals imports) for years,” said Woodard. “Maybe, just maybe, these tariffs will help level the playing field.”


MicroSoft TechSpark program expands to NCW

QUINCY — The world’s largest software company is about to spark — make that TechSpark — increased economic growth in parts of North Central Washington.

Redmond-based Microsoft announced March 16 that the state’s “North Central Basin” area is one of six regions across the U.S. selected as a Microsoft TechSpark community.

Other regions announced Friday included El Paso, Texas; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and southern Virginia. Last October, Microsoft launched the TechSpark program with the announcement of Fargo, North Dakota, and northeast Wisconsin as the initial member communities.

In 2007, Microsoft built its first Quincy data center on 75 acres of former farmland. In 2015, the company bought an additional 200 acres for a massive expansion of its data center in the Columbia Basin town.

The TechSpark initiative focuses on five economic programs: digital transformation, digital skills and computer science education, career pathways, rural broadband and support for nonprofits.

Each TechSpark community will also have its own not-yet-announced signature project “which will be a major investment that we hope will help local economic growth and create jobs,” said a Microsoft oress release.

Lisa Karstetter will lead the new initiative. Raised in Othello, she’s been a Quincy resident for 28 years and previously served as an executive for Yahoo and director of the Quincy Valley Chamber of Commerce.

It’s great to see the big presence Microsoft has in our (Quincy) community,” said Karstetter. “I’m excited to be part of Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative to build on that foundation to ensure that everyone in the region has access to the tools and technologies needed to thrive in today’s economy.”

Details of how the initiative might affect NCW’s tech industry haven’t been released, but are expected within coming months, said Brad Smith, TechSpark president and chief legal officer.

Technology is rapidly changing our economy, including how we communicate, learn, work and access health care and other essential services, creating opportunities as well as challenges,” Smith wrote in a TechSpark blog.

Regions outside of major metropolitan areas sometimes have been affected by the challenges even more than the country’s largest cities” he wrote. “We aim to bring educators, business, governments, nonprofits and other civic organizations together to turn these challenges into opportunities.”

For more info on Microsoft’s TechSpark program and its expansion into NCW, visit http://bit.ly/2GBofPU.


Home prices hit new high

WENATCHEE — Higher-priced homes selling at a brisker pace pushed the Wenatchee home market’s median sales price to a new record in February.

The median price increased to $306,375, up from a previous high of $305,000 set in September and an 11 percent jump from $275,000 in the same month last year.

Meanwhile, total home sales in February hit 66, up from 37 in February 2017. Closed sales year-to-date are up 26 percent (122 deals) over the first two months of last year.

The numbers were included in the February market snapshot released March 12 by Pacific Appraisal Associates, a Wenatchee-based consulting and appraisal firm. The Wenatchee market includes Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Malaga, Orondo and Rock Island.

Reason for the price rise?

Active listings have declined — down 19 percent from February 2017 to hit 123 — with inventory particularly scarce for homes priced $300,000 and below.

The $400,000 house is the hot new price point,” said Erin Davidson, a broker with Premier One Properties in Wenatchee. “As overall inventory goes down, buyers are swapping up to higher-priced homes.”

In February, noted Davidson, the market had a 4.2-month supply of homes priced $400,000 to $450,000 — down from 5.2 months in February 2017 and 7.2 months in February 2016.

The selling pace in that price bracket is definitely picking up,” she said.

Fueling the higher purchase prices are well-heeled buyers from Puget Sound that include tech industry employees and retirees flush from selling their homes in one of the nation’s hottest markets, said Davidson.

But the Wenatchee market is also being fed by in-market buyers — “Folks who already live here,” Davidson said — who have sold their homes at higher-than-expected prices and are reinvesting in a pricier home.

When it comes to local buyers, some growing families are moving up to bigger homes while some baby boomers are downsizing,” she said. “But the result is that many are going upmarket — investing in a higher-priced property.”

Other stats from February’s market snapshot:

New listings (as opposed to active listings) year-to-date were up 14 percent to 170 compared to 149 for the same period last year.

Building permits for single-family homes during the first two months this year numbered 26, up from 12 permits issued in January-February 2017.

Despite improved high-end sales, homes priced $200,000 to $350,000 continued to be the busiest category — outselling all 10 other price categories combined by more than 35 percent.


Department of Revenue launches new tax, licensing portal

OLYMPIA — The state Department of Revenue last month launched a new portal for the agency’s online tax and licensing services used by businesses.

The new portal, My DOR, will launched March 19. The agency will retire its current online service, My Account, and users will begin accessing their accounts through the new My DOR

Changes include a new look for the online excise tax return, reseller permit application, tax credits application and bill pay services.

Businesses should use their existing Secure Access Washington (SAW) log-on to sign in. SAW accounts are also used to access portals for state Labor and Industries, Department of Licensing and Employment Security Department.

Businesses without a SAW account will need to create one, said a DOR press release.

To help businesses adjust to this change, DOR is offering a series of free training webinars.

Webinar participants will learn the basics of the new My DOR portal. Topics include how to transfer tax filing history from My Account/e-File, file a combined excise tax return, set up a default payment method and send and receive secure messages. Participants will also have the opportunity to ask questions.

For the complete webinar schedule, visit dor.wa.gov/mydor.


Instacart rolls into region

WENATCHEE — Instacart, the largest on-demand grocery delivery service in the U.S., begin here last month to shop the aisles and drive the miles to get a grocery order to your house or office.

It works like this: You choose groceries and fresh produce at your favorite store via Instacart’s app or website. A personal shopper (yes, a live human being) goes to the store and buys the stuff. Then that same shopper drives the grocery order to your house.

You pay, of course, for the groceries, but Instacart will deliver your first order for free. After that, orders have an added fee of $7.99 if delivered in one hour and $5.99 if delivered in two hours. You can also pay a flat $149 per year (a la Amazon Prime) to have orders of $35 or more delivered for free.

And get this, first-time users can also enter discount code “HIWENATCHEE” at checkout to get $20 off an order of $35 or more, plus a free first-time delivery. The deal expires May 14.

The new service covers much of Chelan and Douglas counties, including Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Rock Island, Malaga, Leavenworth, Chelan and Manson. Stores include Albertsons, Safeway, Cash & Carry, Costco and Petco.

All the info you’ll need to open an account, buy groceries and maybe even become an Instacart Shopper (it’s a real paying job, and they need more than 100 shoppers) can be found at Instacart.com.


Mortuary departs; AutoZone zooms in

EAST WENATCHEE — Dan Barr, president of Center Investments Inc. in East Wenatchee, has been a busy broker over the last few months. 

He reported last month that he’s pulled l together two deals that will spice-up the commercial mix in East Wenatchee.

They are:

AutoZone, 711 Grant Road — The former home (make that funeral home) of Telford’s Chapel of the Valley was demolished last month to make way for the new AutoZone auto parts store.

It’ll be AutoZone’s second location in the Wenatchee Valley — the Wenatchee store opened in 2002 on Springwater Avenue — and the fourth AutoZone in North Central Washington (counting Quincy and Ephrata).

The Tennessee-based company has over 6,000 stores and more than 87,000 employees in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil. In 2017, AutoZone had $1.28 billion in sales.

Barr said the new East Wenatchee store will be in the 6,000-square-foot range and could be open as soon as early summer, if construction goes smoothly.

The company has been looking for years for just the right property to expand into East Wenatchee,” Barr said. “And they’ve found a good one — high visibility, lots of traffic, easy access.”

Meanwhile, the business side of Telford’s (now called Chapel of the Valley) was bought in October by the Precht family, owner of Jones & Jones-Betts Funeral Home in Wenatchee. Chapel of the Valley will temporarily operate in the Jones & Jones facility until a new facility is built on Eastmont Avenue in East Wenatchee.

Mattress Firm, 303 Valley Mall Parkway — It seems like a mattress store has always been destined for ths particular retail space, which is in the former location of GESA Credit Union next to Blue Spoon Yogurt in a commercial strip near Wenatchee Valley Mall.

How so? Well, competitor Mattress Outlet opened in 2007 in the 3,524-square-foot space. In 2011, Sleep Country USA bought 14 stores in eastern Washington, including the Mattress Outlet in East Wenatchee, but the store never really opened. That’s because Sleep Train Inc. bought a batch of Sleep Country USA outlets, including the one in East Wenatchee. After that transaction, the store faded away and GESA moved into the space.

Mattress Firm bought Sleep Train in 2015 and is now one of the largest mattress retailers in the U.S.  Barr says the new Mattress Firm should be open by June.


SAGE, Pacific Engineering take top Chamber awards

WENATCHEE — Organizations that design buildings and protect families took center stage March 14 by grabbing top honors at the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Banquet.

Wenatchee-based Pacific Engineering & Design, which provides civil and structural engineering services, was named 2017 Business of the Year and SAGE (Safety, Advocacy, Growth Empowerment) of Wenatchee won honors for 2017 Nonprofit of the Year.

A sell-out crowd packed the Wenatchee Convention Center for the banquet, which touted a theme of “Honoring the Past & Looking to the Future.”

Two Chamber honors — the annual Cornerstone Awards — were also presented to attorney Gil Sparks and Steve and Tina Tidd for their support of Wenatchee Valley community and causes.

More than 115 businesses and organizations were nominated for the night’s awards.


Pickle Paper picked as ‘Downtown’s Best’ business

WENATCHEE — Peggy Nichols said she was “blown away” when voters for the Downtown’s Best Awards picked Pickle Papers, her stationery and gift store, as best of the best among businesses in Wenatchee’s commercial core.

Nichols received the honor last month at the Wenatchee Downtown Association’s annual Appreciation Dinner at the Wenatchee Convention Center. More than 170 civic and business leaders attended.

In all, 10 Downtown’s Best awards were presented at the event, including three honors to longtime businessmen “who have made major contributions to downtown’s success,” said WDA Executive Director Linda Haglund. More than 400 people cast votes in the online balloting.

Nichols, who launched her stationery and gift store with daughter Marnye Woodrum in 1995, said the Downtown’s Best award took her completely by surprise. “It threw me for a curve. I’m completely humbled.”

Pickle Papers, which previously had won Downtown’s Best Customer Service award for five straight years, specializes in cards, stationery, writing accessories and art papers and supplies.

We’ve been here long enough to really get to know our customers,” said Nichols. “And many of those customers have become dear friends.”

Haglund noted that many stationery stores have disappeared from America’s downtowns. “But Peggy continues to be a success because she helps people connect — through written cards and letters, through artworks and through face-to-face customer service.”

Nichols is “a smart businesswoman who didn’t shrink from the huge changes that came with computers, the Internet and online shopping,” said Haglund. “She’s both old-school and new-school — a woman who loves to serve her customers in person, but who was also smart enough to launch a successful online store.”

Other honors included:

  • The Downtown Legacy Award to Bob Salmon, 92, for his decades of contributions to downtown’s success.
  • The Heart of Downtown Award to Dave Gellatly for his many years of support for downtown business and causes.
  • The Spirit of Downtown Award to Greg Wilson for his beautification efforts — flowers and plants — along downtown blocks.
  • Downtown’s Best Eating Experience to Iwa Sushi and Grill.
  • Downtown’s Best New Business to wine bar Norwood on the Avenue.
  • Downtown’s Best Customer Service to clothing retailer Collins Fashions.
  • Downtown’s Most Creative Window Display to The Gilded Lily.
  • Downtown’s Best Neighbor Award to Firehouse Pet Shop & Grooming.
  • The Downtown Preserving History Award to the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce for its renovation of its new office space in 2017.


Flywheel Conference to feature noted Northwest executives in ‘fireside chat’

WENATCHEE — Top execs from a global hospitality company and a Northwest venture capital firm will be featured speakers at the Flywheel Investment Conference here this month.

Howard Wright, chairman of the Seattle Hospitality Group (SHG) and managing partner of Sheraton Seattle, and Diane Fraiman, partner at Voyager Capital in Portland, Oregon, will hold a “fireside chat” on how Northwest communities have invested to support regional companies.

The dialogue is part of the Flywheel Conference’s full day of presentations and workshops aimed at entrepreneurs, investors, local business people and creators of startup companies. The conference will wrap-up with six or more startups competing for an investment award valued at $100,000.

Directed by GWATA, the conference is set for April 19 at the Stanley Civic Center in downtown Wenatchee.

Wright helps manage SHG, a holding company with interests in tourism, transportation and event management companies in Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. The company has over 400 employees with revenues exceeding $100 million.

At Voyager Capital, Fraiman has over 30 years of tech company experience in sales, marketing and business development. She currently works with startups in software, digital media and cloud infrastructure industries.

Tickets and registration info for the event are at flywheelconference.com.


Sales taxes increase in Okanogan County, Moses Lake

NCW — Sales taxes in Okanogan County and Moses Lake will ticked upwards April 1 to help pay for detention facilities and transportation services, respectively.

The local sales tax increases are part of a rise in rates for a handful of cities and counties across Washington that passed sales tax measures last November, the state Department of Revenue said in a press release.

In Okanogan County, a rate increase of 0.1 percent will take effect in cities and unincorporated areas for juvenile detention facilities and jails. New rates include:

  • 7.8 percent in unincorporated Okanogan County, Coulee Dam, Elmer City and Nespelem.
  • 8.2 percent in the county’s existing transportation benefit areas served by public transportation.
  • 8.2 percent in Brewster, Conconully, Omak, Oroville, Pateros and Riverside.
  • 8.3 percent in the city of Okanogan, Tonasket and Winthrop.
  • 8.5 percent in Twisp.
  • In Moses Lake, a sales tax rate increase of 0.2 percent will help pay for transportation services. The new rate will be 8.1 percent.

Rate increases will also take effect in Ellensburg to help pay for housing and related services, in Clallam County for juvenile detention facilities and jails, in Columbia County for communication systems and facilities and in the cities of Connell, Long Beach and Mukilteo for transportation services.

For more information, visit http://bit.ly/2GlPEp5.


Visit Wenatchee’ to sponsor running events

WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce’s tourism brand — Visit Wenatchee — will be the sponsor this year for a host of trail running events offered by RunWenatchee.

The sponsorship is an expansion of an existing partnership between the chamber and RunWenatchee, said running group spokesman Steve Maher.

We are thrilled to have Visit Wenatchee as our main sponsor for all things trail running,” said Maher. “The chamber is emphasizing outdoor recreation through Visit Wenatchee … With our growing trail system here, open vistas and amazing scenery, the potential is immense.”

Sponsored events will include RunWenatchee’s:

  • Trails in Motion Film Festival held last month in Wenatchee. The festival is a traveling showcase of short films on trail running and ultra running from around the world.
  • 2018 Wenatchee Valley Trail Run Series, which launches April 28 with the Horse Lake Trail Runs in the Wenatchee Foothills, followed by the Red Devil Trail runs on June 2 near Cashmere and the Oktoberfest Trail Runs on Oct. 20 in Leavenworth.

Registration for the trail runs is open at runwenatchee.com.

  • Special running events, including a visit to Wenatchee by world-renowned runners Yassine Diboun (April 21-22) and Max King (mid-May). More information on these visits will be posted soon on RunWenatchee’s Facebook page at facebook.com/runwenatchee.

Established in 2009, RunWenatchee hosts seven trail and road races annually plus a free weekly Thursday run and walk called run Club, free weekly track workouts during warm-weather months and several social events.