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Editor's Notes: Lights on in Baker

If all goes as announced today, the beleaguered Ash Grove Cement plant will lay off 68 of its 116 workers. Most of the employees of the Durkee factory live in Baker County, which has an unemployment rate of 10.4%. That does not include the job losses at Ash Grove, one of the county’s biggest employers that’s faltering because of the recession.

That 10.4% figure (for October) is a little better than the state’s November unemployment rate of 11.1%, which is uncommon for rural counties. But regional economist Jason Yohannan told the Baker City Herald that the Ash Grove layoffs would overshadow four months of steady rates. “I wouldn’t get too upbeat about a couple months of stable unemployment numbers,” he said.

Another story in the Herald had Huntington residents also concerned about the loss of Ash Grove jobs. “Hopefully these layoffs will be temporary. Ash Grove is vital to this community, and to the entire area,” one resident told the Herald. “Those are good-paying, steady jobs with good benefits.”

Editor's Notes: The Custer economy

Economist John Mitchell was miked and prowling the audience, a business breakfast crowd’s Oprah without the free cars or gift baskets. At one point during Mitchell’s detailed but entertaining and humorous summary of the bitter economy, a man whispered to his tablemate: “I could use a glass of wine.”

Mitchell is a well-known war horse on the speaker’s circuit. Now a consultant, he was the chief economist for U.S. Bancorp for years and has been making economic presentations around the country and region for decades. Mitchell was at the Governor Hotel presenting his 2010 economic forecast at a forum hosted by the Portland Business Alliance Wednesday, and as he paced around the room, he went through a painful recounting of where we stand.

Among the litany of woe: every state has year-over-year employment declines; it's longest recession in 78 years; and the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar spent. Yet, technically the recession is over with third-quarter 2009 seeing a small rise in GDP; housing might have reached its bottom; the global economy is improving; and there has been an uptick in employment over the past few months in 28 states.

Editor's Notes: Robot hamsters and me

I didn’t throw myself against glass doors on Black Friday to be one of the first shoppers to snag one of those freaky little robot hamsters ("Zhu Zhu Pets don’t poop, die or stink, but they are still a riot of motion and sound!”). And I didn’t spend all my time surfing the web on Cyber Monday. I actually was working at my computer all day (really, boss, I was).

I’ve basically stopped shopping, and I’m beginning to feel like a Communist since I’m being told that my willingness to spend, even if it’s a stupid thing to do, is the only thing that will save the country. And now I have those poor rich bastards in Dubai to worry about.

My fellow business and news writers have breathlessly charted the biggest shopping days of the year this past week as if they were witnessing the end of the world. Will the American consumer come back in force? Will they spend more or less? What will happen if they don’t grossly spend beyond their means and the world economy sinks even lower!? I thought at one point a TV interviewer was going to pass out from the anxiety of it all. Santa, please bring me one TV news show that knows the difference between covering frenzied Wal-Mart shoppers and covering Hurricane Katrina.

Editor's Notes: Celebrating arts heroes

The young Lopez brothers were standing by themselves at our table when I showed up Wednesday morning for the Arts Breakfast of Champions, an annual celebration of businesses that support the arts. The brothers — Joaquin, 34, and Salvador, 32 — are small businessmen. La Bonita, their family-owned Mexican restaurant on NE Alberta, employs 12 people, four of them family members. They opened La Bonita 10 years ago. “At first, it made $100 a month,” said Joaquin. “Now it provides livable wages for our family.”

For several years, Joaquin, the owner, has donated free catering to the Miracle Theatre for opening nights and other events. Those donations allow the theater, located on SE Stark, to keep prices affordable so families of all incomes can attend. The restaurant has also donated to other groups such as the Latino gay pride festival. How does a small operation like La Bonita find the time and resources to do this? “I just do it,” he said.

It was a morning full of stories like that; stepping up and doing something even if you are small, even if you don't have unlimited resources. Business for Culture & the Arts called them "the heroes" in honoring them, and that seems like the right title. They might not have the deeply appreciated big pockets of top business donors such as Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo (which collectively gave $1.4 million this past year), but they help lift the arts in their own heroic ways.

Editor's Notes: Leadership summit cancelled

The annual business summit that brings together hundreds of the state’s business, political and civic leadership has been cancelled this year after seven consecutive summits. “We have decided to take a year off,” said the Oregon Business Plan's steering committee in an announcement Nov. 13.

“In these difficult and uncertain economic times, we want to 1) continue to promote implementation of the work already proposed in the Business Plan and 2) take a fresh look at the plan and its initiatives to bring to the Leadership Summit in December 2010," the committee said.

That summit would come after the general election, where the state will elect a new governor. The state’s business community has made no secret about how unhappy it is over Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s signing into law this past Legislative session tax increases on businesses and the incomes of wealthy Oregonians. Businesses led the drive to bring the measures to a vote in a Jan. 26, 2010, special election.

Editor's Notes: A declaration of Independence

The last time I visited Independence was on a cold morning three years ago, the day after Boise Cascade announced the closure of its veneer mill. The mayor and the city manager greeted me with coffee and optimism. When I returned recently, the optimism and coffee were still flowing.

The tiny city (2.3 square miles) on the west bank of the Willamette River has for the past three years been doggedly pushing on its economic development plans, and Mayor John McArdle and City Manager Greg Ellis seemed unbowed by the bad economy, job losses or high unemployment. The longtime mayor and Ellis were full-steam ahead on many fronts. “We’re not immune,” says the hard-charging McArdle. “We’re not Pollyanna. But it doesn’t pay dividends to say, ‘Woe is me.”’

Three years ago, the eight-screen movie theater had yet to open, the fate of the Boise site was unknown, the historic downtown struggled with vacancies, and the need for jobs was huge. Like many small, rural Oregon towns, the poverty levels were and are high.

Editor's Notes: The bottom line on nonprofits

The recession is hitting Oregon’s nonprofit sector hard. The Oregon Community Foundation’s midyear report on giving trends released this week shows that most of the 134 Oregon charitable nonprofits surveyed are under some degree of financial stress. It didn’t vary much from the report earlier this year from OCF.

The situation mirrors the national picture. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the nation’s 400 largest charities expect giving to drop by a median of 9% this year.

The OCF report doesn’t come as a surprise, given that foundations have lost equity in their funds; businesses are struggling to survive, while many have gone under; and the personal pocketbooks of all Oregonian have been pinched.

Editor's Notes: Salem's slow and steady race

Salem always has had a bit of a “pass-through” problem to contend with. Many of the state workers live somewhere else, and if you come down from Portland just to do business, which a lot of people do during the legislative session, you take a fast road into the city core, and then speed out again. This drive-by view of Salem doesn’t give you a full view of some impressive progress being made in the state’s capital, despite the recession.

Anytime I head to Salem, I always make it a point to spend time with Mayor Janet Taylor. The chic high-energy mayor knows her city inside out and on this trip the discussion was more poignant than previous ones. Taylor, who is 68, announced in mid-September that she would retire in December 2010, having by then served four two-year terms.

As we ate lunch at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, itself a point of pride for downtown redevelopment, she outlined what she would focus on in the next year: basically, jobs, jobs and jobs. It isn’t much different than the focus of her past three terms, and it’s refreshing to hear a politician’s understanding that without enough jobs in your community, nothing else really matters. Core issues of poverty, education and health all depend on being able to earn a livable wage.

Editor's Notes: A blast from the past

It was 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning and my brain fog was still thick. I was invited to attend the Portland chapter meeting of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, whose speaker that morning was Mark Moses, a CEO coach and motivational speaker from Irvine, Calif.

I sat next to an owner of a local roofing company, and as we ate, he told me that his very small business was about to go bankrupt. He had started it a few years ago when the housing boom was still surging. I asked him what he would do, and he shrugged and said he would just start looking for a job, any job, because keeping his family safe was the most important thing. The room was full of people from real estate-related companies, and everyone was feeling the pain.

Moses then got up to deliver his spiel. He started his first company, a painting service, when he was 19; sold it in 1992 and founded Platinum Capital Group, a mortgage company that despite its “ups and downs” was wildly successful. Then his son got cancer, but thankfully recovered, and he began competing in Ironman events to raise money for charity, eventually selling his business in 2006 and moving on to teach other CEOs how to be successful. Motivational tagline: “On your mark, get set, grow!”

Editor's Notes: A beauty named Allison

When I toured the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg this past spring I wore a hard hat, a safety vest and boots to get through the muddy grounds and unfinished construction. In five short months, the project has been completed, a dream has come true, dozens have found jobs and a nervous bride has been made very happy.

The Allison officially opened Sept. 25 and on that weekend hosted its first wedding. General manager Pierre Zreik took me on that spring tour and told me then that they absolutely had to make their deadline because they had a wedding booked for opening weekend and you never make a bride mad. Just a few days ago, the happy bride proudly sent Zreik wedding pictures.

The dream completed is Joan Austin’s. Austin founded dental equipment maker A-Dec with her husband Ken in 1964. Over the decades, she acquired 450 nearby acres, all within the urban growth boundary. The inn sits on 35 of those acres about two miles of Highway 99W and construction began in November 2007. When I interviewed Austin in April, she would not say (and has not said) what the Allison cost. It only mattered to her that she was creating a gift to the community she had lived in for 60 years, one where she built a business and a home and raised a family. Her dream was to leave behind a place that would provide jobs, a community gathering spot, and a point of pride.

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