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Saturday, September 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Avista, Amazon fulfillment dominate local business coverage in 2018

The headquarters of Avista Corp. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The headquarters of Avista Corp. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Boom and swoon on Wall Street and tariff one-upmanship between Beijing and the White House spread anxiety among investors and corporate leaders in 2018, while consumers drove economic growth with their renewed zeal for spending.

As the year draws to a close, economists, investors, business leaders and consumers see a mixed bag containing mostly positive economic indicators as they look back on a year that saw major business and economic stories leading many news feeds.

A tight housing market with escalating home prices, job growth and historically low unemployment were among the national trends mirrored in the Inland Northwest. Meanwhile, the proposed purchase of Spokane’s homegrown utility and the pending arrival on the West Plains of an e-commerce giant and its employment potential had people talking, tweeting, posting, lamenting and anticipating.

They are the stories that dominated local business news in 2018.

1. Avista’s sale denied

Many Avista customers opposed the Spokane-based utility’s plan to be purchased by Hydro One Ltd., of Toronto. Some expressed discomfort over the province of Ontario’s 47 percent ownership stake in the Toronto utility. As it turned out, that was a sticking point for Washington regulators, too.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission cited instances of Premier Doug Ford’s political influence on Hydro One when it denied the $5.3 billion sale on Dec. 5.

Avista and Hydro One have asked for a reconsideration of the decision. But analysts are doubtful the UTC would reverse its course, given the emphatically worded ruling.

For the purchase to go through, regulators in states where Avista operates must determine the sale would benefit the utility’s customers.

2. Amazon announces fulfillment center

It sounded like Amazon, but for months, a giant warehouse planned for the West Plains was known by the code name “Project Rose.” Contractors and public officials were sworn to secrecy. In late July, Amazon finally acknowledged the project was part of its distribution network.

The new fulfillment center is expected to open in late 2019, with initial employment of more than 1,500 workers. Hiring will begin sometime next year.

3. Competitive real estate market

Spokane appeared at the top of a list of “10 Affordable, Midsize Cities” put out last spring by Realtor.com.

While the average home price of $256,000 in the Spokane area remains affordable compared to other West Coast cities, local buyers are grappling with rising prices and competition for limited inventory.

Prices through November shot up 12 percent compared to last year, according to the Spokane Association of Realtors. Inventory is down by 23 percent.

4. Vandervert Construction shuts down

Vandervert Construction Inc., a Spokane general contractor responsible for hundreds of projects throughout the Pacific Northwest, closed abruptly in February.

Owner Tim Stulc blamed the company’s troubles on $14 million in cost overruns and losses at a string of hotel projects, mostly west of the Cascades.

After Vandervert Construction filed for receivership in Spokane County District Court, an attorney was appointed to liquidate the company’s assets and pay creditors.

5. Spokane County job growth

Local employers created about 5,000 new jobs in 2018 with hiring occurring across multiple industries.

Restaurants and bars benefited from regional population growth and rising wages, adding employees. Schools, health care and transportation industries also added workers.

Manufacturers were hiring, too, and those gains occurred even as local companies embraced lean manufacturing, said Doug Tweedy, a regional labor economist for the Washington Employment Security Department.

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