Impact of the national economic downturn on Bellingham and Whatcom County is noticeably less severe than in other areas of the United States. Although shallower, our economic slowdown and the growing chasm between income and cost of living are reasons to re-connect with what our business community needs to thrive and remain resilient.
Basic inputs for entrepreneurs
Our entrepreneurs invest time, talent and money to create commerce and provide jobs that help support our physical and social environment and our overall quality of life. For success they rely on a system of resources and procedures that comprises several elements: leadership and stewardship, infrastructure, funding, work force; and innovation, technology and best practices
Leadership and stewardship that generate action strategies are the foundation upon which all else is built. Elected officials, community leaders, businesses and individuals all participate in these activities, and each must do his or her part as stewards of their “areas of influence.”
Infrastructure refers to the careful planning and use of land and utilities (electricity, gas, water, telecommunications, Internet and transportation) that enable communities to function. These baseline, and often low-profile, activities require a strong network of public partners and technical practitioners who work in tandem with the private sector to keep our physical infrastructure efficient, reliable and responsive to evolving needs.
While public works projects cover most infrastructure development, a series of “quick response” tools and activities are available to augment private sector investments.
Stakeholders come together
Planning Academy II: City of Bellingham leaders and planners considered new ways to accommodate neighborhood in-fill, and the call for livable, walkable urban centers. Planning Academy II took about 100 citizens, landowners, businesses and community leaders through exercises and discourse to address these issues and as a result, the city may reconsider basic planning and permit policies.
Whatcom Farm Friends: Whatcom Farm Friends has been at the forefront of planning for conservation and preservation for years. WFF’s Water, Land and Labor Policies and Public Involvement Plan will inform greater regional planning efforts around industrial and commercial uses while protecting our land.
Funding for private-sector investment encompasses a full range of resources from personal savings and “angel investors” to conventional banks. In addition, a number of public and alternative funding resources strive to meet the demands of evolving businesses. These resources, such as Whatcom County’s Economic Development Investment Fund or the Port of Bellingham’s Industrial Revenue Bonds, augment our efforts toward economic vitality.
Local successes spur interest
In May, the BWEDC, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism and the Port of Bellingham hosted the Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) for its regular bi-monthly meeting and a special tour of funded projects in our region. These special tours take place only about once every two years.
The excitement and enthusiasm over Wood Stone Corporation, Nature’s Path Foods, Inc. and IKO Pacific’s success was infectious. Without access to resources through private and public partnerships, these companies would have had more difficulty reaching their goals. Each of these firms has now gone beyond expectations, providing more jobs and commerce than estimated.
“The CERB investment in public infrastructure was one of the critical pieces for the Nature’s Path U.S. facility development in Blaine,” said Arran Stephens, president and founder of Nature’s Path Foods. “Our partnership with the city, CERB, and other entities makes the company’s growth and success possible.”
CERB manages four funding pools: Traditional and Rural; Job Development Fund; Local Infrastructure Financing Tool (LIFT); and Rural Economic Vitality Partnership. Whatcom County has received CERB infrastructure funding for 17 projects, totaling $14 million since its inception in 1982.
Skilled work force imperative
A highly skilled work force is also imperative for a vibrant economy. Today, more than ever, businesses consider the community and potential for ongoing innovation and local synergies within their industry when selecting sites. Demand for skilled workers in all sectors will remain high for the foreseeable future.
We are fortunate to have a unique mix of work-force support and educational opportunities within the Greater Whatcom region. We must stay vigilant to keep pace with the global market by addressing immigration (i.e., high-tech and agriculture sectors), meeting the increased demand for workers with specialized trade and technical skills, and accommodating the needs of our creative visionaries.
Public-private team earns funds
In 2007, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a new training partnership between the state of Washington, Alcoa Intalco Works and Bellingham Technical College. BTC delivered job training to new and existing employees of Alcoa’s aluminum smelter facility. Washington‘s Job Skills Program awarded BTC the $60,000 grant to provide the training. Alcoa matched the grant to provide another $60,000 for the training.
Innovation and best practices seen
Innovation and technology include all of our evolving industries and continual improved best practices such as supply-chain management, “green” jobs, and “zero waste” practices.
We in Bellingham and Whatcom County benefit from having so many strong businesses and entities focused on cutting-edge opportunities and leading-edge practices. And, we are fortunate to have many organizations that support the incorporation of new and best practices.
The bottom line: economic health
It is imperative that we align our leadership, infrastructure, funding, and work force to accommodate our evolving industries, innovative businesses and valued lifestyles. Only then can we foster the healthy businesses and good jobs that keep a community strong and resilient.