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Originally published Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sunday Buzz

Posh WaMu conference site for sale

The Cedarbrook Conference Center — an elegant, Northwest-modern monument to Washington Mutual's overheated ambitions — is offered for sale by new owner JPMorgan Chase.

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

Bank-owned property for sale: Huge kitchen, great-room with soaring ceiling, attractive wood finishes. Built on 18 acres, sleeps 102 or more. Foreclosure situation.

That could be the sales listing for Cedarbrook Conference Center in the city of SeaTac, an elegant, Northwest-modern monument to Washington Mutual's overheated ambitions. JPMorgan Chase, its current owner, put the center up for sale Friday.

Tucked inside a residential area a few blocks from the International Boulevard boundary of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the high-tech meeting and training complex opened in 2002 while WaMu was on a spree of buying banks and opening scores of branches across the country. With rock-lined ponds and preserved wetlands, it has a distinct natural ambience. Now its original name — the Washington Mutual Leadership Center — seems sadly ironic. Washington Mutual Inc. is in Chapter 11 after federal regulators seized the troubled bank and sold its banking operations and company-owned real estate to Chase.

Chase is marketing Cedarbrook through Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, and isn't disclosing the asking price.

Between the recession and the demise of its primary user, the conference center has fallen on hard times. Hotel-motel tax receipts paid to the city have fallen by 60 percent, to about $700 a month, says Jeff Robinsoneconomic development manager for Seatac. In better days it generated about 2 percent of the city's hotel-motel tax revenue.

The move to sell comes just after Seatac liberalized its rules for Cedarbrook. To minimize the neighborhood impact, Seatac originally restricted the center to conferences and corporate training, with only "incidental" use for wedding and social events allowed. This week the city said 40 percent of bookings can be for nonbusiness events, which could help "to raise the level of business back to where it was," says Robinson.

He says the city wouldn't let Cedarbrook become "just a regular, stand-alone hotel" because that would bring too much traffic to the neighborhood.

One customer that's not having big corporate confabs at Cedarbrook is Chase. Since it no longer has a headquarters operation here, says a spokeswoman, "I don't think really there's a need."

Dreamdiner won't fly; nor a Concorde

"A consortium of Hollywood movie stars has confirmed an order for a single Boeing 787 which it plans to use as a flying restaurant," read an April Fool's Day story on FlightGlobal.com.

It went on to explain that a group including "well-known aviation enthusiasts Harrison Ford, John Travolta and Tom Cruise" envisioned two-hour flights out of LAX while 50 passengers enjoyed "Cordon Bleu" cuisine.

Adding credibility to the spoof were the illustrations — a plane soaring over LA with "Dreamdiner" written on the side in a red, Johnny Rockets-like script, and a floor plan showing "lounge seating 18; table seating 48."

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What gave it away? Maybe it was the serious, jargon-filled discussion of how Boeing "had recommended a technical solution to reduce the risk of turbulence which involved removing Soup of the Day from the menu."

Or maybe it was the reference to the creator of the menu, "French chef Monsieur Fou d'Avril."

Not so obvious, apparently, was another April Fool's joke that a blog on FlightGlobal.com reported as news.

Citing a release from the official Web site of the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace in France, Flightblogger reported on the afternoon of March 31 that the museum would fly a restored Concorde supersonic jet this summer in honor of the 40th anniversary of its first flight. (The last of the 20 Concorde jets was grounded in 2003, a victim of poor economics and a 2000 crash.)

Flightblogger author Jon Ostrower did include a disclaimer that said, "I have already noted tomorrow's date (April 1st) and am crossing my fingers that this is real and actually going to happen."

But his caution (and the fact that in France, April Fool's Day had nearly begun) weren't enough to prevent him from a serious headline: "BREAKING: Concorde to fly again June 16, 2009."

— Rami Grunbaum

REI sees some sun amid sales gloom

During REI's annual membership meeting this past week, chief executive Sally Jewell quoted a prominent economist who predicts that after a "painful" 2009 and "uncomfortable" 2010, retailers can begin to grow again.

"He may be optimistic," she told more than 70 people at the cooperative's Seattle flagship store. "It's tough."

Jewell reviewed a 2008 holiday-sales season in which Kent-based REI fared worse than the overall U.S. retail sector. It posted a decline of 25 percent in same-store sales for November, followed by a 9 percent drop in December. (Sales at stores open at least a year, also called same-store sales, are considered a key gauge of retailer performance.)

Besides the recession, REI was battered by a late start to the ski season, Jewell said.

"There's nothing the economy can throw at us that a good snowstorm can't fix," she said. "We didn't have good snow until late in the season."

But it's not all doom and gloom for the outdoor gear and apparel retailer. REI is doing better on a month-to-month basis than the 5 percent decline in same-store sales it has predicted for 2009, Jewell said.

Also, customers spent their dividends "pretty consistently" with previous years during the co-op's annual membership sale last month, she said.

REI recently distributed $72.7 million in patronage refunds to 3.7 million active members, based on its total 2008 sales of $1.4 billion. Members could use their dividends to make new REI purchases — at 20 percent off a full-priced item during the sale — or hold onto them and redeem them for cash later in the year.

"Backpacks, tents, bicycles and sleeping bags all have been doing very well," Jewell said, describing preliminary results from the sale as "very strong."

A recessionary trend called the staycation — vacationing nearby, or even at home, rather than flying off to some expensive destination — might be partly responsible. "I think fewer people are traveling to Europe," she said.

— Amy Martinez

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@-

seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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