In a sense, some homegrown Spokane businesses are like some of the community’s children.
They start out small, grow a bit, experience successes and grow some more. And then some move away.
For some young Spokane adults, that may mean pulling up stakes and heading to Portland, Seattle or Los Angeles after college. For some Spokane companies, it might mean merging with a bigger company, like Avista plans to do with Toronto’s Hydro One; or being purchased, as Telect Inc. was recently by Amphenol of Connecticut; or having corporate headquarters moved to another city, as Red Lion announced it would do.
Call it the Circle of Life, corporate style.
“The Circle of Life is being a little bit harsh on us now,” Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said Thursday afternoon.
These aren’t the first corporate moves to whack at the community psyche. Old-timers may still talk about the time the Spokane and Eastern Bank was bought by Seattle-First National Bank, or Old National Bank by U.S. Bank, or when American Sign & Indicator was sold and later moved its headquarters out of Spokane.
Losing local control of a homegrown company is always a shock, but each change has to be viewed on its own terms, people familiar with economic development said.
On the Telect purchase, a member of the Williams family that started the company will remain in control in Liberty Lake, although the local operation will report to the Connecticut parent company, said Todd Mielke, chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated.
The Red Lion announcement apparently doesn’t represent a very big change, Mielke said. According to company sources, Red Lion’s chief executive officer has lived in the Denver area for about three years, and it has had an office there for about that long. It also has its design center in that city. The rest of the senior management team is expected to remain in Spokane, so operations will continue like they have for the last three years.
It seems to be mainly a change of address on the corporate papers, Mielke said. “The company will continue to be active in the community,” he added.
In the case of Avista, its headquarters would remain in Spokane. The homegrown utility, which started out as Washington Water Power Co. in the 19th century, would be able to take advantage of the resources of the bigger firm based in Toronto, said John Powers, a former mayor of Spokane who is now executive director of Kitsap Economic Development Alliance.
“It’s a transaction from a business standpoint that makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Overall, it’s going to be a transaction that’s going to benefit the community – a positive thing with a little footnote.”
And that footnote is that such a move should not, but often can, diminish the community’s psyche, at least for a while.
After he was mayor of Spokane, Powers moved to Seattle, where he was doing community development for that city when Boeing announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago. The announcement sent shock waves not just through Seattle but the entire state.
After the shock wore off, Powers said, city officials realized only about 120 employees were moving to Chicago. While it was true some of those were employees with large salaries, the manufacturing and engineering were staying put.
“It wasn’t as big of a blow as it initially appeared to be,” Powers said. “But you always hate to lose a hometown company and a hometown corporate citizen.”
Knowing that some companies could leave or at least reduce their job forces in Spokane, local officials are constantly looking to bring new ones in. Among his targets, Mielke said, are millennial entrepreneurs who may have grown up in Spokane, moved to a big city and are now looking for a place that’s more affordable and less congested.
Stuckart said he and Spokane Mayor David Condon will be in Seattle on Friday meeting with five companies they hope to lure to the community with new amenities, such as the growing University District.
“Every day we’re thinking about what we can do to bring people here,” Stuckart said. “We hope they can create new companies that can grow big here.”