Emerging from disruption. In practice, chambers of commerce, economic development groups and downtown associations don’t publish New Year’s resolutions. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be asked about their hopes and expectations for 2023.
So I did.
Their responses paint a nuanced picture of this year’s potential business climate in Whatcom and Skagit counties, especially when mapped to what was memorable about 2022 as well as recent survey results from the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.
If I had to pick an anecdotal throughline, it would be the unsteady state of the workforce. Challenges about getting enough staff, and the right staff, seemed common.
“I think if we can get our workforce issues solved (read: child care) and housing (read: affordable) then things look good,” said Sandy Ward, the outgoing CEO and president of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. “The demand is there for tourism, so we just need to make sure we are able to find the workers to take the jobs."
A related perspective surfaced in Skagit County.
“I hope more and more businesses become proactive with building their workforce,” said Aaron Weinberg, economic development manager for the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC). “It can’t be done as passively as it had been in the past with the smaller labor pool that currently exists.”
Now factor in new data from a fall survey taken by the Bellingham Regional Chamber. While the sample is relatively small — 110 responses for a Chamber with a membership of about 500 and a larger email newsletter list — anxieties about the workforce shortage come through loud and clear, and in a bit more detail than a Chamber survey done earlier in 2022.
Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce, in downtown Bellingham on Aug. 9, 2022. The Chamber recently surveyed the local business community on top issues impacting businesses. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Asked to identify the top issue impacting their businesses, 15% of respondents cited the lack of an available workforce, 14% the lack of a skilled workforce, 3% workforce issues due to a lack of child care and 2% workforce issues due to health concerns.
In aggregate, that adds up to make the workforce the top single issue. “A third [of the responses] are workforce issues,” said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber. That put staffing ahead of second-place inflation’s 24% in the survey.
The organizations that mentioned staffing challenges also pointed out that businesses are realizing the fix isn’t a matter of writing more compelling help-wanted ads.
“Available housing is still our top issue we need to continue to focus on, so our employers can have a workforce,” Occhiogrosso said, in part echoing tourism executive Ward’s comment.
“We’ve been facilitating partnerships between industry and education to address workforce challenges and develop workforce pipelines,” EDASC’s Weinberg said of its new initiatives that pursue another approach, “and are already seeing great success from our most engaged industry partners.”
The clear implication: Business can’t solve the workforce shortage issue by itself in 2023, on multiple fronts.
Another strong undercurrent of hopes and expectations for the new year was staying flexible in anticipation of stability. Eventually.
Ferndale Downtown Association Executive Director Melissa O’Brine on Oct. 28, 2022. O'Brine said successful businesses have overcome many disruptions. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
“My expectation is that businesses will remain status quo during this time of economic uncertainty,” said Melissa O’Brine, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Association. “The successful businesses in Ferndale have managed many the storm. We are experiencing such growing pains right now so I expect a lot of 2023 will be spent mitigating the effects.”
The whiplash inflicted by repeated economic disruptions in 2022 and earlier also appeared on the mind of Jenny Hagemann, marketing and communications manager of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.
“First, we hope the resiliency and pivoting many businesses have demonstrated over the past three years insulate them from continued inflation,” Hagemann said. “Second, we hope the community continues to prioritize spending [at businesses] locally.”
It’s not that 2022 evoked no fond memories.
Hagemann mentioned “the momentum we’ve regained in our annual programs and events” such as Downtown Sounds, and DBP’s commission of the mural by Ivan Colin and B. Cricket at the intersection of West Holly and Bay streets. Ward highlighted the “tremendous rebound in hotel occupancy rates throughout Whatcom County.”
Ivan Colin stands in front of the mural he is painting off Holly Street in downtown Bellingham on July 11, 2022. Downtown Bellingham Partnership cites the mural as a highlight of 2022. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Megan Juenemann, executive director of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, recalled overall that “it has been exciting seeing people come out in person to engage and connect again.”
And in a dozen months, for what business community results might 2023 ideally be remembered? The answer was straightforward to one organization exec, especially considering both the local and international importance — think nearby Canada — of a healthy regional business climate.
“I would hope,” said the Bellingham Chamber’s Occhiogrosso, “a continued prosperity.”
Places & things
Skagit Women in Business (SWIB) shut down at the end of 2022. The organization, which it said dates back to 1980, announced its closure “due to a severe lack of attendance and fewer individuals willing to take on leadership roles” primarily due to the pandemic. In a news release, SWIB said Skagit Community Foundation is taking over its scholarship fund, and that its Facebook page would remain active.
(For the latest Places & Things, check here throughout the week.)
Frank Catalano’s column appears Wednesdays. Email: email@example.com; Twitter @FrankCatalano.
A previous version of this column misspelled the names of Jenny Hagemann and Guy Occhiogrosso. The column was updated to reflect this change on Jan. 4, 2023. The Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.