While 2012 was a recovery year for much of the Whatcom County economy, a few bumps along the way were reminders that it is not completely back on track.
According to the data, the local economy showed significant improvement in a variety of areas: Overall bankruptcy and foreclosure filings were down, along with the unemployment rate. Retail and home sales were up, as well as construction activity.
Even with the improvement, Whatcom County still has a ways to go to get back to the pre-recession days of 2007. That shows up clearly in some of the top Whatcom business stories of 2012, which include the closure of longtime businesses.
A few of this year's top business stories made the list of top overall local news stories on page A1, including the coal terminal debate, closure of the Semiahmoo hotel, the opening of the Barkley theater, Bellingham's plastic bag ban and the BP Cherry Point refinery fire.
Here's a list of other top local business stories, in no particular order:
BELLIS FAIR SEARS ANNOUNCES CLOSURE
In an effort to survive as a company, retail giant Sears has spent the past few years closing underperforming stores. In 2012, it announced plans to close the Bellingham store in January 2013. The closure means the loss of 92 jobs; however the space will be filled by another retailer, Sports Authority, later in 2013, according to officials at Bellis Fair.
DATA POINTS TO IMPROVING ECONOMY
Throughout much of 2011 the county's unemployment rate was in the 8 percent range. By November 2012, the rate was down to 6.5 percent, with 2,300 more people employed in private non-farm jobs compared to a year earlier. The number of people seeking employment or underemployed remains high compared to before the recession.
The manufacturing sector, which tends to pay higher wages than other sectors, was particularly strong in terms of job growth. The number of people employed in manufacturing locally was estimated to be 9,100 in October, the highest monthly total since September 2008.
The county's retail sector consistently outperformed much of the rest of the state. A big factor was the continued influx of Canadian shoppers, who took advantage of their country's strong currency to get discounts on products in Whatcom County. Sales of new cars also rebounded in the county, particularly in the late summer and early fall.
Construction activity also rose. Permit values were up significantly in Bellingham and Ferndale, with Bellingham issuing significantly more commercial remodel permits while Ferndale posted a big increase in residential home permits.
INTALCO GETS POWER DEAL
Alcoa Intalco Works signed a 10-year power deal with Bonneville Power Administration on Dec. 7, ending years of job uncertainty for 625 aluminum smelter employees near Ferndale.
Intalco and its employees have survived some tense times the past 10 years as power supply disruptions led to the shutdown of most of the other aluminum smelters in the region and idled Intalco for a time. Alcoa officials repeatedly warned the smelter would have to close permanently without a contract guaranteeing long-term access to BPA's supply of relatively low-cost hydropower.
BIG BOX DEVELOPMENTS
Costco representatives met with Bellingham city staff earlier this year to discuss the development of a new store near West Bakerview Road and Pacific Highway. Part of the discussion involved traffic improvements in the area, and Bellingham Mayor Keilli Linville indicated she was putting together a proposal to bring to the City Council.
Also, Fred Meyer expressed interest in building a new store in Lynden, but after receiving public input and doing some design plans, the company decided the property they were looking at didn't fit the company's needs.
PROMINENT BANKRUPTCIES PROCEED
Two longtime Whatcom County developers - David Syre and James Wynstra - continued to struggle with the financial issues.
Syre, known for a variety of large developments locally, including Semiahmoo resort and Bellis Fair through his company, Trillium Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2011. Syre spent much of this year going through the process with creditors.
In recent weeks Syre settled a 10-year-old real estate loan dispute by agreeing to pay Polygon Financial $6.5 million as part of Syre's financial reorganization. He continues to work with other creditors to come up with a settlement plan.
Bankruptcy proceedings for Wynstra and his companies, which include Homestead Northwest, and could take up to seven years to untangle. It's estimated that in 2011 the Homestead companies owed about $65 million to more than 350 investors. The company was known for developing a variety of properties in Whatcom County, including a golf course and residential area in Lynden.
FIRE DAMAGES DARIGOLD FACILITY
In February, a fire in the main dryer tower at the Lynden milk powder facility caused significant damage, cutting production capacity. The loss of capacity impacted local dairy farmers, who had to ship to other Darigold plants in the state or at times had to curtail milk production.
According to an article in the Lynden Tribune, a letter sent to dairy farmers in April from Darigold indicated that the Lynden facility wouldn't be running at full capacity until spring 2013.
REAL ESTATE BOUNCES BACK
Activity picked up in Whatcom County residential sales as the real estate market continued to recover across the country.
Final numbers for 2012 aren't in yet, but according to Coldwell Banker Bain, single-family home sales in Whatcom County through November were up about 15 percent compared to the previous year. The median price of those homes sold was up about 1.6 percent.
This area also had a significant number of commercial property sales, particularly distressed property in the Blaine and Birch Bay areas. Those sales included Birch Bay Square, which sold for just under $8 million; the former Sea Links Golf Course in Birch Bay; CJ's Beach House restaurant in Birch Bay; the Birch Bay Waterslides; and the Marin Condominiums in Blaine.
PRIVATE LIQUOR SALES BEGIN
On June 1, retailers across the state began selling liquor as a result of the passage of Initiative 1183. Aside from some consumer confusion about the actual price (some stores didn't add liquor taxes until it was brought to the cash register), the switch from state-run to private stores appeared to go smoothly. In the first month of privatization, liquor sales were slow, but sales picked up later in the year, according to the state Department of Revenue.
In Whatcom County, several former state-run stores became private stores, and most of the bigger grocery stores began selling liquor. The change also brought more competition: BevMo, a large specialty liquor company, announced plans to open a Bellingham store in February.
Reach DAVE GALLAGHER at email@example.com or call 715-2269.