Survey finds confidence on the rise

Index soars to highest point ever as economy grows

Developer Ken Hertz, here in front of his Blossom Commons commercial building on the corner of Kellogg Road and Meridian Street, said while he has some concerns about growth issues, he expects the economy to continue to grow locally.

   Optimism continues to reign supreme among local business leaders, as many are hard-pressed to find anything wrong with Whatcom County’s economy.
The Bellingham Business Journal’s quarterly business confidence survey again rose to its highest score ever. The 2005 second quarter score was 78.0, up from 76.8 in the first quarter of the year, and a low score of 61.6 when this survey was first started in November 2002.
   The survey is comprised of 13 area business leaders who represent a variety of sectors, as well as local economic analysts. The participants rank their confidence score in the local economy between 1 (bad) and 100 (excellent) every three months.
   When looking at the numbers, it’s hard to find something not to like about the economy. At 4.7 percent, the county’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the state. The local economy has added 5,000 non-farm jobs in the past year and has a 4.1 percent job growth rate this year, which is among the highest rates in the state. Also, retail sales have jumped in the past year.
   “Whatcom County’s economy has really been going great guns this year,” said Jim Vleming, a regional labor economist for the state. “Nearly every industry sector has added jobs in the past six months, with some impressive gains in areas such as construction, which alone added 600 jobs to the economy. There are not many places in the state enjoying the kind of economic growth that Whatcom County is right now.”
   The only real concern among those surveyed is how long Whatcom County can keep this up, especially in construction. Terry Daughters, a commercial lender at Peoples Bank, said the construction industry may be starting to peak.
   “I’m starting to see things slow down a little bit, as less new projects are coming online,” Daughters said. “There are some developers that have told me they are hesitating, waiting to see if this current real estate market is a bubble. They want to see where the market is going before diving back in.”
   To Daughters, that’s not necessarily bad news.
   “With the way the market is going, you have to reach a point where there is a bit of a slowdown so everyone can catch their breath and assess the market and decide how much more construction is needed,” Daughters said.

What’s making this engine run?
   Many of those surveyed are convinced the local economy will sustain itself for at least the nearterm because they are impressed at how broad-based the economic growth has been to this point.
   “I would be more concerned if most of my sales were coming from one or two sectors,” said J.R. Rawitzer, owner of Tri-County Office Interiors. “What I’m seeing is strong sales in a good cross section of the economy. It’s not as crazy as the past three years, but we’ve had a lot of steady sales.”
   Larry Raney, co-owner of the Print & Copy Factory, said what has impressed him is the overall confidence he sees from his customers.
   “I’m not seeing a lot more new business, what I am seeing is established customers making bigger purchases, willing to invest more,” Raney said.
Raney’s chief concern these days is making sure his business is running well so it can take advantage of opportunities and handle growth.
   “In this business you have to keep upgrading and continue to get more flexible for the customer. With the way things are going, I’m feeling confident investing in a way to make this company better, because I don’t see things changing.”
   Another sign the economy is going well comes from the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council, which is currently handling 14 different projects with companies either expanding or trying to relocate to Whatcom County.
   “We are also getting at least two or three phone calls a day from people inquiring about this area, so we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been,” said Rob Pochert, executive director for EDC. “People want to move to this area, and that is a factor when you look at why this economy is doing well.”
   The growth in the economy is something this area has needed, said Ken Hertz, owner of Blossom Development and the former mayor of Bellingham.
   “It’s time our community grows up and gets a tax base,” Hertz said. “Growth is something that is needed here, but it has to be done sensibly.”
   Hertz said as he works on projects out in the county, particularly in Blaine and Birch Bay, he continually gets his optimism about the economy confirmed when he meets people.
   “People are here because they want to be here, not because they have to be here,” Hertz said. “And they continue to come. Because people will continue to come here, I expect this economy to keep chugging along through the end of the decade, right up to the (2010 Winter) Olympics.”

How we handle growth becoming a more
pressing concern

   With all of the construction taking place in Bellingham, people are becoming more concerned about how much growth this area will have, and they aren’t getting answers from city leaders, said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.
     “There is still no common vision in place, something we can all point to when people wonder where we are going as a community,” Oplinger said. “We need to have this conversation soon.”
   Hertz agreed, saying residents are seeing all these projects happening without a plan in place, so they are becoming increasingly perturbed about any projects that require a public hearing.
   “We’re missing some leadership on this issue of growth,” Hertz said. “In most situations, if the citizenry see a well-planned project with open spaces and other amenities, they’ll buy into it. If they are frustrated because they don’t like the way a city is growing without a plan in place, they’ll try to kill all the projects.”
   While growth is a concern, it’s not something those surveyed see as a problem that will hurt the economy yet.
   “Overall, things look very good,” Oplinger said. “Even something like rising gas prices hasn’t slowed things down around here. Every sector looks healthy right now.”



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