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There are no crystal balls in the new economy

In our March 13 issue, Reporter Katie Wilson’s story “St. Helens’ small businesses ride a tricky market’s ups and downs” illustrated both the difficulties and opportunities in our current economy and marketplace. The difficulties become obvious when a business, such as Houlton Bakery on Columbia Boulevard, has to close its doors after a decade of service to residents of South Columbia County.

Houlton Bakery’s dilemma is not an unusual one. Businesses that have survived the “Great Recession” and are poised to emerge — finally — on the others side are encountering a wide range of market forces, including a stew of conflicting reports that sometimes indicate positive trends ahead and, at other times, foretell of more doom and gloom.

It can be challenging, to say the least, for a small business to predict the future in such a way that instills confidence when making long-term decisions. In Houlton Bakery’s case, the business decision to add to its services with the inclusion of beer and wine was met, reportedly, with a condition from the landlord that such a license would require a three-year lease. In this market, a three-year commitment is no small undertaking for any small business, and the bakery owner did as many of us would — planned a shut down and a search for a new location.

This is not necessarily bad news, however. Many such stories are likely to reveal themselves as businesses, landlords, industries and employees evaluate the emerging new marketplace and attempt to take advantage of it or carve out a new niche. Even here, at The Spotlight, we have made considerable strides in our product and have switched to a Friday to further distinguish ourselves in the local media market. So far, the decision has been overwhelmingly met with approval and optimism from both readers and advertisers.

On the note of employees, there is strong evidence from the state the labor market is as robust as it has been since 2008, and March numbers are expected to be the most promising yet. Revised figures for January show as many as 5,400 jobs were added across Oregon, a considerable improvement over the 4,200 jobs first reported. In February, the private sector added 6,000 jobs, while the public sector added 800, according to an Oregon Employment Department report out earlier this week. Oregon’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February came in at 8.4 percent, unchanged form January.

The trick, however, is to balance such reports againgst the political quagmire that’s driving sequestration talk in Congress and ongoing debt headaches in overseas markets, in places such as Cyprus and Greece that seem far away but are only a button-click from Main Street in our integrated and digitally accessed economy.

For more evidence of the ups and downs, the front page of last week’s Spotlight further emphasized the changing environment. Cascades Tissue Group has ramped up its exploration of increased production at the former Boise Inc. mill, arguably one of the most promising prospects for South Columbia County to revitalize its industrial core with family-wage jobs. And, as one reader pointed out in response to Wilson’s story, there are myriad small, locally owned businesses, such as Bertucci’s on Columbia Boulevard that is expanding its services to include doughnuts and pastries, and Good Things Café in Olde Towne — another place for sit-down cup of coffee — that continue to evolve and thrive with the changing market.

Finally, and certainly not least of all, there is now a concerted effort in South Columbia County to organize for the purpose of improving the area’s attractiveness to businesses large and small. Businesses in St. Helens have formed a merchant’s association, and the St. Helens Ecomomic Development Corporation, or SHEDCO, has been working with landlords to market vacant storefronts.

There is a lot of forest to wade through still, and working together as a community to accentuate the strengths of our neighboring business partners is paramount.

As we report this week, the Port of St. Helens is updating its master plan for Scappoose Industrial Airpark, a good sign as we can anticipate considerable industrial and business activity at the airport — activity we would expect to run parallel with the improving real estate market and the overall economy.