Clickbait for the mildly concerned

Whether you want that oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver buried or built tomorrow, it was an exciting week.

First, we find out the companies behind the terminal are looking for some changes to their lease. Then the port’s staff comes out against it. Tuesday sees a daylong public hearing on the lease amendment (for which an editor told me I took home the Iron Ass Award). And on Friday, the port’s three commissioners could throw the three-year process to build the country’s largest oil-by-rail terminal into question.

Neat, huh?

Many readers are of course more interested in results, not the process (I’m a fan of both). So when something started happening at the port’s waterfront property, they took notice.

The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse '23. Photo by Natalie Behring.
The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse ’23. Photo by Natalie Behring.

I try not to write solely about the port — there is so much more to the economy of Vancouver and Clark County — but potential open meetings law violations are nothing to ignore.

Other recent stories include a look at the tepid recovery of manufacturing jobs, the 25-year-rise of Betsy Henning and how so few of Washington state’s big energy projects have escaped the permitting process alive.

And of course, don’t miss my column about malls, where I channel my childhood, Joan Didion and Taylor Swift.

Stay tuned for more, soon. The news never stops, and neither will I.

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Calm Waters and Sunny Skies

Along the Columbia River in a nondescript warehouse sit a few unfinished yachts that will likely fetch about $35 million each. When I looked upon them and stood among workers of a dozen trades building the behemoths by hand, I thought yet again about what a great job I have.

Employees of Christensen Shipyards work aboard a megayacht under construction in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Cowan.
Employees of Christensen Shipyards work aboard a megayacht under construction in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Cowan.

After years of struggles, Vancouver’s luxury yacht builder Christensen Shipyards is emerging from the depths of debt and litigation. Or so the story goes.

It was a busy and productive first month on the business desk, which saw me flinging stories about everything from the Sunday cover above to downtown’s newest building in recent memory.

Then of course there is the beat inside my beat — the nation’s largest oil terminal, proposed for the Port of Vancouver. While many stories can seem procedural, a few hearings saw plenty of action last month.

I also cover Clark Public Utilities, the electric utility for this county of 450,000. Staff there recently allowed too many people to sign up for solar incentives, which means people already enrolled and counting on that pool of state subsidies to break even on their investment could now see less money.

And you thought the sun didn’t shine in the Northwest. Well it does in Clark County, at least according to this year’s economic forecast.

Jobs, housing and earnings can populate my weeks, though I also get to write the occasional column for Sunday’s section, stretching my voice and, who knows, maybe attracting some readers my age. Last week I wrote about my generation’s peculiar personal finance. Coming up: Who knows, maybe I’ll hang out at the mall?

Down to business

At its most basic, news happens when things change. So here’s some news: I’m changing beats and joining The Columbian’s business desk, where I’ll be the lone staff writer under business editor Gordon Oliver. I’ll be covering the proposal for the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal, several ports, publicly traded companies and the economy of Clark County — 450,000 residents (or do I call them consumers now) and growing. It’s a big opportunity on a big beat; I promise not to screw it up.

Meanwhile, in Battle Ground…

A broken fence and other debris lie on the side of Rasmussen Boulevard in Battle Ground. A tornado ripped through the city of about 18,000 in December, leaving trees torn from the ground, fences and debris scattered, and reports of 36 homes damaged.
A broken fence and other debris lie on the side of Rasmussen Boulevard in Battle Ground, Wash. A tornado ripped through the city of about 18,000 in December, leaving trees torn from the ground, fences and debris scattered, and reports of 36 homes damaged. Natalie Behring photo.

The tornado ripped through the town a little more than a year after a tornado tore through Longview. Amazingly, in both cases, no one was hurt. Though the storms that bred this year’s twister had some other victims.

My first Sunday centerpiece at The Columbian ran Dec. 13 and concerned Camas, home of the Papermakers (at least in name and spirit). Even as the city’s paper mill has declined, the fortunes of Camas have soared. It’s a success story countless timber-dependent towns so common in the Northwest wish they could emulate, no doubt.

Elsewhere, I’m tracking a $32 million upgrade to La Center’s exit on Interstate 5, which will be completely paid for by the Cowlitz tribe and their casino’s financial backers. And then there’s the example of why you call inquiring reporters back, ahem, Camas/Washougal Moose Lodge. Also, don’t miss the lede on this one. I tell stories about it.

Back to business: In 20 years, I can see Vancouver’s waterfront being an obvious staple for the city, whether it be on the port’s land or the private development just downriver. Watching that happen and being a part of that history is going to be a rewarding ride.

New year, new beat, same commitment to accountability, clarity, brevity and levity. Stay tuned.

400 miles later

I can say I’ve made my way around Clark County, and my business card supply has taken a dent to prove it.

All over, I found through data, discussions with housing advocates and developers, rent is too damn high — it’s not just the big cities facing an affordable housing crisis.

Out in Battle Ground, an $84 million highway project has the chance to inject some life into the north county hub’s economy, plus save some lives along the way.

Up in La Center, something stinks about the city’s inability to provide sewer service to the proposed Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s casino.

And east county got some press via Washougal’s up-and-coming downtown

More locally, in the absence of our business and environmental reporters, Lauren Dake and I took on the environmental review of a proposed oil terminal. Of course it was dropped two days before Thanksgiving. Transparent as turkey gravy! We’ll persevere. Even though we might also be getting tar sands oil from Alberta should the oil terminal get approved.

Big projects on the horizon, stay tuned.

Oh, Columbia

“These roads don’t move; you’re the one that moves.

Last week I started at The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., just across its namesake river from Portland. It’s not too far down the road from Longview, though it’s certainly a step up in many regards. I couldn’t have done it without all the editors, reporters, readers, professors, family and friends who have helped out along the way. Thank you.

But let’s get right to it.

On my second day I got to experience the “strong personalities” of those in county and local government for an ultimately short-lived public transit conference.

Then I flexed my feature chops for tours of a nearly finished Clark College building and a redone Fort Vancouver visitor center. Institutions love showing off their shiny new things, see.

The open atrium of Clark College's new STEM Building will be glass-paneled like much of the rest of the $39 million building set to open to students next fall. (Brooks Johnson / The Columbian)
The open atrium of Clark College’s new STEM Building will be glass-paneled like much of the rest of the $39 million building set to open to students next fall. (Brooks Johnson / The Columbian)

My normal beat will be small Clark County cities and all the enterprise I can dig up there — like convincing the city of Battle Ground to comment on their city manager leaving, which I had to confirm through the city he’s heading to. Or this widely shared news-obit for “Ridgefield’s grandpa,” Hank Hayden.

My last story for The Daily News, after a week filling in as city editor, was on little Gracie and her inoperable brain tumor.

I know from working in several newsrooms now that this industry is packed with skilled and passionate people. Newspapers may be shrinking and changing, but what we do remains as important as ever. And we’re just as good as — no, we’re better than — the business that preceded us.

If You Live Here

Then you already know this is the biggest thing happening in Longview:

Striking members of AWPPW Local 153 and their families man the picket line outside the KapStone pulp and paper mill in Longview after the union went on strike at 3 a.m. Aug. 27. Photo by Brooks Johnson.
Striking members of AWPPW Local 153 and their families man the picket line outside the KapStone pulp and paper mill in Longview after the union went on strike at 3 a.m. Aug. 27. Photo by Brooks Johnson

The 800-member strike had been a long time coming, and it came on a day I was filling in as city editor. I’ll just say that so far we’ve done a fair and thorough job.

And as the news gods would have it, on Day 1 of the strike the City Council voted to move forward on a new water system, taking the first $300,000 step of what could be a $30 million to $55 million bid to replace a fully functional water system with a little too much silica.

Summer — the season of slow news days — is over.

But it did give me time to do some big-picture stories.

One of my favorite things to report on is ideas. To start a conversation, surprise readers and affect policy. That’s the dream, right?

For example, one idea to reduce the ballooning costs of public defense is to decriminalize driving with a suspended license.

And I took a look at one idea that’s been coming up again and again — body cameras for police officers. Here’s why a quarter of the country’s police forces use them and just five percent of Washington state’s do.

On the justice beat, this murderer’s sentencing was heart-wrenching, and the courtroom was tense over the sentencing of a drunk driver who almost killed two young women and himself in a head-on crash.

Oh, and the sheriff of quaint Wahkiakum County took in a box of plastic explosives from a woman who found them in a storage unit.

On the feature front, I chronicled the drag-racing Gorans family, who took one last trip down the blacktop this month.

I’ll leave you with this photo of a small brush fire north of town while sending thoughts to the firefighters and families affected by the record-breaking fires in this parched state.

A tree erupts in flames during a brush fire on private land north of Kelso. Photo by Brooks Johnson.
A tree erupts in flames during a brush fire on private land north of Kelso. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Where there’s smoke

There’s an early start to what will likely be a brutal fire season in the West, even on this side of the Cascades.

Two officials drove me around one of the area’s larger fires this week — Douglas firs burning as birthday candles for me — and my photos of the trip took the front page Wednesday. Here’s one:

Department of Natural Resources firefighter Jason Hoerner radios area crews at a lookout above the Colvin Fire east of Woodland on Tuesday. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Elsewhere, in my continuing efforts to be Good At Everything, I’ve taken on the cops and courts beat in addition to covering Longview’s government and people.

That has already kept me busy with another death in the county jail, a murderer looking for a new trial 15 years later and our famous local hotelier digging himself into a hole. Allegedly.

There’s also my favorite data-based story so far, a look at the shared costs of the drug problem in the county.

City of Longview employee Ron Pedersen picks up trash and refuse left behind by drug users at Lake Sacajawea, including some small pieces of insulation stripped of the copper wiring it held. Photo by Brooks Johnson

But it’s not all doom and gloom in Cowlitz County, right?

Take the cardboard boat regatta, for example. Or my widely shared look at a year in the legal pot industry.

Then there’s the occasional W from our Cowlitz Black Bears — seemingly only taken after 11+ innings when I cover the games.

See, we have fun.