U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., recently visited two businesses in the Gorge to learn more about how they will benefit from a rewrite of federal tax laws.
One of his stops Jan. 5 was at Freebridge Brewing Company, which is located in the historic Mint building in downtown The Dalles. He sipped hot coffee while discussing how tax reforms will help small businesses.
“How’s it going?” asked Walden upon entering the pub and brewery at 710 E. Second Street.
“We’ve had our challenges, no doubt,” replied Steve Light, who owns and operates the pub with wife Laurie.
Their establishment opened in January of 2016.
A little more than a year later, Freebridge took a silver medal (second place) at the Oregon Beer Awards, which was hosted by Willamette Week in Portland.
Their winning beer was the ‘Pulpit Rock Pilsner,” a German-style beer that Steve said is especially challenging to brew properly.
Light told Walden the award was a morale booster since business tanked during the winter of 2016-17 when record snow on the ground kept people at home.
To offset the loss of revenue, he said staff hours had to be reduced to about half of normal.
Then, in late summer, which should have been a high production month, Light said the Eagle Creek Fire sparked on the western end of the Gorge and led to the complete closure of Interstate 84 through that area for about two weeks, followed by other lane closures. That kept tourists away, which he and Laurie estimate at about 70 percent of their customer base.
“Business was abysmal, we realized how dependent we are on tourism,” said Light.
“It’s great to get any level of traction after 2017, I am so glad to put that behind us. It was just one disaster after another.”
Light said having the excise tax of $7 per barrel cut in half under the new tax plan would make a difference during a time it was sorely needed.
He said setting the corporate tax rate at 21 percent tax rate instead of 35 percent was also going to benefit American businesses.
“We are not yet showing a profit but, when we are, that will be a significant benefit,” he said.
Walden said the cut in the corporate rate brought the U.S. rate close to those of competitor nations.
In February, Freebridge will celebrate its second anniversary (Laurie said the party is delayed from the actual date due to the greater potential for bad weather in January).
The Lights said the business might never have opened without help from Walden and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. They said the federal officials helped them unsnarl the bureaucratic red tape to obtain permits for the brewing process.
“We appreciate the continued presence,” said Light, who urged Walden to continue working to pare back burdensome regulations.
“It takes a village to build a brewery, it really does,” he said, praising the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District for startup funds and the City of The Dalles for working efficiently with entrepreneurs at the local level.
Light told Walden that after their experience, he recommends that startup businesses hire a consultant to help them get through all of the necessary federal paperwork to get the green light for a project.
“You’d think in this modern era, so much of the permitting process could be done quickly and efficiently,” said Walden, noting that the regulatory process is becoming more business friendly under the Trump administration.
He said it was important for the government not to stifle the growth of small businesses, which employ more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Light said, to compete in the world of craft beer, Freebridge had to expand its operation to send more products into the marketplace, although the pub would still be the first area of focus.
Walden was told by Light that 83 percent of Americans drank Coors and Anheuser-Busch beers, so even capturing a small share of that market would be profitable.
“We’re hoping for wider distribution and a continued foothold in the community,” said Light.
He showed Walden the new recyclable 5-gallon containers that can replace the traditional steel keg for small events, yet another costs savings.
“These are all the rage in Europe and this is going to take off in the U.S. with energy costs climbing,” said Light.
Freebridge was named for the first bridge over the Deschutes River, which was crossed by pioneers on the Oregon Trail. That same enterprising spirit is evidenced in 2018, said Light, with the business adding new beers to the tap menu.
“We’re really feeling good about going into 2018,” said Light. “I’m happy about the new tax code, we will benefit.”
Walden, the only Republican in the Oregon delegation and the only federal leader from the state to vote for the tax law changes, has also received praise from the agriculture industry.
Both the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association have thanked Walden and others in Congress for the “huge lift” given farming operations.
For example, the death tax is being eliminated for estates under $1 million, while maintaining an annual indexing for inflation, which covers nearly all family ag operations.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was unanimously opposed by Democrats also allows farmers and ranchers to write off costs of qualifying purchases up to $1 million for small business (up from $500,000). The bill allows use of Section 179 bonus depreciation for qualifying used equipment, not just new.
“I grew up on a cherry farm in The Dalles, so I know a little about how things work in that world, and how these changes will help,” said Walden.
Laurie (Petroff) Light is the fifth generation of a farm family that runs a wheat and cattle operation in the Fifteen Mile Creek valley.
She thanked Walden for stepping up to help the agriculture industry, as well as the small business sector.
“Overall, you are going to see the economy grow,” said Walden of the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts.
He said other changes in tax law are still needed. He is hopeful of being able to lift the negotiated $10,000 cap on the combination of local property and state income taxes that can be deducted from federal taxes.
“My hope is that we can come back and expand that to $15,000 or $20,000,” he said.
Walden told the Lights to stay tuned for more work at the federal level to help grow their business.
Prior to touring FreeBridge, Walden visited Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary headquartered in Bingen that designs, develops and manufactures unmanned aerial systems for military and commercial uses.
His visit to the facilities was not open to the media.
However, Ryan Hartman, president and CEO of Insitu, publicly released this statement in December after President Donald Trump signed the first tax reform measure in three decades: “Boeing and Insitu applaud Congress for taking critical steps to reform the tax code, which will help us in the Columbia Gorge region become more competitive and invest more in innovative technologies that drive expansion of the use of unmanned systems. We thank Chairman Greg Walden for his leadership in this area.”
Walden said it was important to help companies, such as Insitu, keep growing to aid economic development. He said the workforce of nearly 1,500 people was expected to double within the next 20 years. In addition, more than 1,000 people visited the company each year to receive training in the use of drones.
“They are going to become a billion dollar company in a few years,” said Walden.