Inside Whatcom County's new effort toward economic development

By Emily Hamann

For the first time in a long time, the governments and institutions in Whatcom County are working together toward building the economy of the whole region. In 2016, that collaboration resulted in the launch of the Choose Whatcom portal, aimed at drawing more businesses to the area. Now it’s going a step further. At the beginning of the this year, the Port of Bellingham hired Don Goldberg for the new, jointly funded position of director of economic development. Goldberg is working with existing Port Economic Development Specialist John Michener to put together the county’s economic development team. One of the first projects they’re working on is to create one, cohesive brochure touting the benefits of doing business in each of the county’s cities.

Goldberg has more than 25 years of economic development experience. He worked in commercial real estate, doing large developments, and the sale and leasing of large properties. He managed major deals at the Trust for Public Land in Oregon, and most recently, worked in business development at the Port of Portland. Recently the BBJ sat down with him to talk about the county economy and his goals for his new role. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

BBJ: First of all, welcome to Bellingham. How are you liking it so far?

DG: I love it. I came up here a bunch of times before I moved here. But it’s a beautiful place. I’d like to make it a beautiful place that also has a clear vision of its future.

BBJ: Tell me a little bit about your new role.

DG: For a long time there have been multiple parties that have worked at economic development here at the port, and there were people that work at the city at economic development, and then there are people at the county and part-time people at the small cities.

It’s been a very, kind of, fragmented system. So for the first time, the county, the city of Bellingham, Washington state as a whole and the port are funding an economic development team.

So my job is to create that team. And to have a clear vision of the entire region, rather than each party looking only out for themselves, basically.

BBJ: How’s that going so far?

DG: It’s going well. I’ve been here about three months. I laid out a first-year vision for the port, county and city, and basically the first three months was one of learning. Asking a lot of questions, meeting as many parties as I can, becoming part of multiple boards. During this second three month period, it’s all about creating that vision for the region. Part of that will be coming from my past and experience, and part of that will be coming from the information that I’ve downloaded and the people that I’ve been meeting with, listening to strengths and weaknesses. In the beginning — I haven’t been culturalized yet, so I can see things much clearer — you know, when you’re involved too long, all of the sudden you’re part of it.

And I’m also here to challenge the community.

We really have depended on our location and the quality of our life to move ourselves forward in every direction, economic development as well.

Whatcom County’s not really on the map, everyone knows about Bellingham. One of my jobs is to put the county on the map, and in order to do that I have to have a pretty clear vision of what we’re going to do.

BBJ: Can you talk a little about your background at the Port of Portland?

DG: So my job at the Port of Portland was a little different. It’s a much larger institution. My title was director of business development, instead of director of economic development. I had senior managers reporting to me from three divisions, one was both domestic and international business development, another one was the industrial land development team, and the third was our marketing of property team. So most of my job was budgeting and managing people and process. I reported to the executive team, and very little of what I did was boots on the ground, where I did projects any longer.

And I really missed that. That organization runs much more like an institution. I kind of like to get my hands dirty … (Here I) do a little of everything. And so part of my job is managing people and a big part of my job is doing the work. And so I really enjoy that; I don’t want to be in meetings all day long. And of course I wanted to move to a place like Bellingham. It wasn’t only work related.

BBJ: What were some of your immediate impressions looking at the economic state of Bellingham and Whatcom County?

DG: To be honest with you, my very first thought was that it was extremely expensive here.

We probably have to rethink thinking that we are an alternative to more expensive communities; I think Bellingham is an expensive community. And the reason that hit me so quickly was I started looking for homes.

I think that what really struck me was I wasn’t expecting the other communities around Bellingham to offer so much and have so many known, recognized companies that are international, located in little towns like Ferndale and Lynden and Blaine.

I always had focused, like everybody else, on Bellingham, and so that was something that really stuck out right away was Whatcom County in general had a tremendous amount to offer.

But it’s not doing a very good job of promoting itself and letting the outside world know what we’re about.

So I had no idea that there were four higher ed education institutions here, with a total of 36,000 students. That’s something that’s an incredibly powerful tool for economic development and not something that’s been touted, so I’m starting to do that.

BBJ: What are the biggest assets that Whatcom County has that we’re not fully utilizing for economic development?

DG: There are things that we’re just not touting or exposing enough.

For instance, we’re either the top or second largest raspberry grower in the nation. Everybody who is a farmer in Whatcom County knows that, but nobody else does, especially outside this region.

We’re also a leader in the manufacture of equipment for the berries. Most people aren’t aware of that outside the region.

We’re also very progressive in our dairy industry. We have some dairies where all the cows have Fitbits on them, and they go in and self-milk. So there’s a lot of technology going on here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all it in front of a computer.

And then we want to really, really start pushing our airport again. The combination of the weak Canadian dollar and low-fare airlines in Vancouver have hurt our airport, so we’re trying to figure out how do we get additional carriers to different locations, so we can start having a more productive airport … We’re doing a lot of work with Canada still. Even though the dollar is so strong, a good portion of the companies we’re working on bringing here are Canadian companies.

BBJ: So your job is to let outside businesses know about what we have to offer, to try and entice them into relocating here?

DG: Yeah, and to take those examples and grow on them. My real job is to take (our current) organizations and companies and grow, expand and bring competitors in. To me it’s more important that we make sure the companies that are here are happy, and we facilitate whatever they need to grow. By doing that we create a cluster. And the cluster causes more companies in similar fields to come.

Very similar to Portland. When Nike went there, all of the sudden Adidas went there, and all these other companies that compete, because they had the designers and employees from Nike there. So we’re trying do that with clusters here as well.

BBJ: In which industries could you do that here?

DG: The marine trades, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture, clean tech, outdoor recreation. I think we identified seven or eight of them.

BBJ: What are the biggest factors driving our economy right now?

DG: Part of it is the just the nation is having a very strong economy, so we’re able to piggyback on that. I think some of it is the baby boomers are retiring and a lot of them are going to beautiful small to medium size cities in which they can have a really high quality of life. So we’re seeing a lot of that.

Of course all the colleges, universities are growing. The waterfront project is bringing a lot of focus to the area as well. And we’re feeding the country here with quite a number of agriculture and dairy products.

Bellingham has got a lot going for it. Its location. Its school systems. Its art and entertainment. It’s quite a rounded city for being as small as it is.

And then of course, location, we can’t forget about that. Being right in between two large cities, we’re influenced by about six and a half million people now.

BBJ: What are the biggest barriers getting in the way of companies coming to Whatcom County?

DG: Some of them have to do with our infrastructure. We don’t have a lot of infrastructure for companies right now. The areas that are undeveloped, most of them don’t have utilities, water, power, stormwater and sewer, and so if a large company, if a dream company came to me and said we want to locate 500 people there, we need 100,000 square feet of office space, it would take quite a bit of time for us to facilitate that. So one of the things I want to do is start to work with the public agencies to figure out how we can start getting infrastructure in. That costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time, but we really need to address that.

Other issues are the cost of living here. That’s why I believe a regional program is really important because there are areas outside of Bellingham that are more affordable.

And then, educated employees, but not only college educated, educated in things like manufacturing. There’s a big movement, that not everybody has to have a four-year college degree. That’s why Bellingham Tech and Whatcom Community are so important, because they’re filling in the these gaps when companies need somebody who is a framer or a welder and they can’t get those people. It’s funny, because we need more jobs here, but we also need more people to fill those jobs.

BBJ: If you could just snap your fingers and make anything happen, as far as economic development, what would you do?

DG: A strong coordination between all the cities and the county. World-class infrastructure, high speed internet, getting broadband to the rural areas of Whatcom County. Partnering with our adjacent county partners. Having a super successful waterfront project. And, of course, bringing a lot of high caliber employers to the region.

DG: We are working with companies outside the region, but I would say right now a majority of our time is focused on supporting, maintaining and growing the companies that are here.

We have some world class manufacturers here that distribute their product all over the world. So I’m working with them, getting to know them better, hoping that I can help them facilitate continuing to grow in this area.

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