Recently, the Whatcom Council of Governments took two actions that received very little attention but that have important implications for Whatcom County's economic outlook. First, Whatcom Council of Governments agreed to accept responsibility for updating and maintaining the county's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy - known as the CEDS - and second, it made the Northwest Economic Council part of the Council of Governments. Perhaps you're asking, "Who are these organizations, and what is a 'CEDS'?" Some background information is in order.
The Council of Governments - which was established in 1966 - is a consortium of all of Whatcom County's elected bodies and facilitates cooperation among its members in addressing issues that affect multiple communities in the county. Its principal responsibility is carrying out the federal- and state-mandated transportation planning processes, but it also operates several related programs, some of which are well known in the county. These include, among others, Whatcom Smart Trips, which helps people find less-expensive and more environmentally friendly ways to travel, and everybodyBIKE, which offers education and other resources to foster bicycle transportation in the county. WCOG's membership includes Whatcom County government, the county's seven cities, the Port of Bellingham and the Lake Whatcom and Birch Bay water and sewer districts.
The Northwest Economic Council was established in 1984 to bring together Whatcom County's private, public and not-for-profit sectors to establish and foster a strategic approach to grow the county's economy. Last month Northwest Economic Council completed the Whatcom Futures Project, a vision for the future of Whatcom County that accommodates growth, economic development, environmental sustainability and equitable access to opportunities.
In early 2012, Northwest Economic Council's executive committee undertook a strategic examination of the purpose and long-term viability of the organization. The first outcome of that exercise was Northwest Economic Council's decision last April to transfer its business recruitment and retention responsibilities to the Port of Bellingham and focus its efforts on economic development planning, including completing the Whatcom Futures Project. By the summer it had become apparent to the executive committee that Northwest Economic Council and the community would be better served by a new operating model that did not rely on membership dues or additional public subsidy. At that point, the executive committee decided to either shut down the organization or find an operating partner that would be able to leverage existing resources to sustain Northwest Economic Council's mission.
Discussions between Northwest Economic Council and the Council of Governments began in August, with Whatcom Council of Governments Chairman Bob Bromley agreeing to bring the idea of merging the two organizations to his executive board, which expressed strong support for the idea. In November, Northwest Economic Council's board voted unanimously to request inclusion in the Council of Governments, which was granted by the full council on Dec. 12.
The idea of having the Whatcom Council of Governments take on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy process came from discussions last summer between Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and County Executive Jack Louws. The process is one that typically leads to communities building capacities to improve their economies and provide employment. Having an approved Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy is a requirement for local governments to be able to apply for funding under the federal Economic Adjustment and Public Works programs. The county's current strategy has not been updated since it was adopted by the County Council in 2002.
Among the reasons Linville and Louws gave for identifying the Council of Governments as the agency best suited to update the economic development strategy included its extensive experience performing complex studies as well as the membership of the county, cities and Port in Whatcom Council of Governments.
So, how does all this tie together? With the Council of Governments taking on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, the Northwest Economic Council - and especially its private-sector members - will inform the process by serving as the steering committee for the strategy update, which will employ a planning process that will:
? Support quality-of-life improvements;
? Create community networking and collaboration;
? Leverage public-sector funding to support private-sector investment;
? Create a favorable business environment;
? Build local competitiveness to support existing business growth in all sectors;
? Look at the economy with a systems approach.
When combined with Whatcom Council of Governments' expertise in transportation and land use - two critical elements for successful economic development - there's good reason to believe that the new Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy will more than just meet the federal requirements: it will identify tangible opportunities for real economic growth and the resources available or needed to achieve it.
Robert Wilson is executive director of the Whatcom Council of Governments. For more information, go online to wcog.org.