It was an up-and-down first quarter in Whatcom County, according to economic data.
A few indicators point toward a strengthening local economy in 2013, such as bankruptcies (down), car sales (up) and some building permit activity (up). However, unemployment also jumped, along with foreclosure filings. A few data categories gave a mixed message, such as real estate: Home sales are up in Bellingham but sluggish in much of the rest of the county.
Here are a few details on the reports and other significant events that took place in the last quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013:
Retail sales: It turned out to be a record-breaking holiday shopping season for Whatcom County retailers.
The county had $891.5 million in taxable retail sales the final three months of 2012, the most ever in one quarter, according to new data from the Washington Department of Revenue. That surpassed the previous mark of $873.4 million, set in the fourth quarter of 2007.
The 7.7 percent increase over the previous fourth quarter was significant, better than the state average increase of 5.6 percent. Washington brought in $29.5 billion in taxable retail sales in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Retail trade, which focuses on sales that took place in stores, totaled $460.9 million in Whatcom County, also the highest local total in a single quarter.
Real estate: For the first three months of the year, 176 homes were sold in Bellingham, a 21.4 percent increase compared to same period in 2012, according to a report put together by Lylene Johnson of The Muljat Group. That's the highest first quarter total since 2008.
But much of Whatcom County outside of Bellingham experienced slowing sales. According to the report, 234 county homes outside of Bellingham sold last quarter, down 2.9 percent compared to a year earlier. When combined with Bellingham, total sales in the county were up 8.5 percent year-over-year. Blaine/Birch Bay, Ferndale, Lynden and Sudden Valley home sales were down compared to the first quarter of 2012.
Dairy: In February 2012, a fire damaged one of the two dryers that turn milk into powder at the Dairgold facility in Lynden, forcing the plant to run at about 60 percent capacity. After the fire, the company decided to embark on a $22 million project to replace the damaged dryer with new technology to improve efficiency. Once completed in late April or early May, the new dryer will produce about 46 percent more powder annually than the dryer it is replacing.
The near completion of the project is considered good news by the local dairy industry. The damaged dryer initially forced Whatcom dairy farmers to decrease milk production during the spring. As the new dryer comes online, the milk cap is expected to be lifted, said Larry DeHaan, a dairy farmer in Lynden for more than 30 years.
Unemployment: When it comes to finding a job, there's a definite split taking place between rural and urban areas in Washington.
With unemployment rates of 5.6 percent and 6.3 percent last month, King and Snohomish counties appear to have some of the healthier job markets in the U.S., according to the latest data from the Washington Employment Security Department. Much of the rest of the state is dealing with stagnant job growth, however: In 24 of the 39 counties, most of which are populated with small communities, the unemployment rate tops 10 percent.
Whatcom County, which has rural and urban aspects to it, is in the middle of the split, posting an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent in February. That's up slightly from a revised rate of 8.4 percent in January. Last month's local unemployment rate is the highest since February 2012.
Construction: More than 450 apartment units are either under construction or in the design/permit phase in Bellingham, significantly more than in recent years. While several projects are downtown, some are scattered in other parts of town, including near Western Washington University as well as in the Fairhaven and Barkley neighborhoods.
One reason for the plethora of apartment construction comes down to supply-and-demand: A recent study indicates the already low vacancy rate in Whatcom County continues to drop, and rents are still on the rise.
Last fall, Whatcom's apartment vacancy rate was 1.7 percent, down from 2.2 percent a year earlier. The average monthly rent rose to $801, up $19 from a year ago, according to a survey from the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.
Bellis Fair: Bellis Fair has announced a major revamping of the mall, a project that includes updating the outside and inside of the building that will give it more of a Pacific Northwest look.
The multimillion-dollar remodel is expected to be completed this fall, in time for a 25th anniversary celebration of the mall and the opening of Sports Authority, which is going into the former Sears building.
Whatcom County quarterly retail sales
Q4 2012: $891.5 million
Q3 2012: $860.9 million
Q4 2011: $828.1 million
Quarterly change: up 3.6 percent
Year-over-year change: up 7.7 percent
Six-year quarterly high: $891.5 million, fourth quarter, 2012
Six -year quarterly low: $624.4 million, first quarter 2009
Whatcom County bankruptcies
February 2013: 48
January 2013: 36
February 2012: 65
Monthly change: up 33.3 percent
Year-over-year change: down 26.2 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 83, February 2010
Seven-year monthly low: 11, February 2006
Whatcom County auto sales
February 2013: 282
January 2013: 390
February 2012: 290
Monthly change: down 27.7 percent
Year-over-year change: down 2.8 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 553, May 2006
Seven-year monthly low: 140, December 2008
Whatcom County residential sales
March 2013: 187
February 2013: 143
March 2012: 186
Monthly change: up 30.8 percent
Year-over-year change: up less than 1 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 398, August 2007
Seven-year monthly low: 104, February 2009
Unincorporated Whatcom County building permit values
March 2013: $3.7 million
February 2013: $7.3 million
March 2012: $9.3 million
Monthly change: down 49.3 percent
Year-over-year change: down 60.2 percent
Six-year monthly high: $65.3 million, July 2011
Six-year monthly low: $2.6 million, January 2012
Whatcom County foreclosures
February 2013: 114
January 2013: 59
February 2012: 47
Monthly change: up 93.2 percent
Year-over-year change: up 143 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 153, April 2009
Seven-year monthly low: 17, September 2007
Median price of homes sold in Whatcom County
March 2013: $238,000
February 2013: $233,500
March 2012: $235,000
Monthly change: up 1.9 percent
Year-over-year change: up 1.3 percent
Seven-year monthly high: $280,450, May 2007
Seven-year monthly low: $208,000, November 2011
Whatcom homes newly listed for sale
March 2013: 438
February 2013: 355
March 2012: 364
Monthly change: up 23.4 percent
Year-over-year change: up 20.3 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 707, May 2007
Seven-year monthly low: 131, December 2011
Bellingham airport traffic
March 2013: 61,402
February 2013: 48,523
March 2012: 52,872
Monthly change: up 26.5 percent
Year-over-year change: up 16.1 percent.
Seven-year monthly high: 61,402, March 2013
Seven-year monthly low: 12,597, September 2010
End of March 2013: 98 cents
End of February 2013: 97 cents
End of March 2012: $1
Seven-year high: $1.07, November 2007
Seven-year low: 77 cents, March 2009
Southbound Canadian border crossings into Whatcom County
December 2012: 1,290,481
November 2012: 1,175,351
December 2011: 1,228,747
Monthly change: up 9.8 percent
Year-over-year change: up 5 percent
Six-year monthly high: 1,676,071 August 2012
Six-year monthly low: 645,792 October 2006
Bellingham building permit values
March 2013: $11.4 million
February 2013: $7.3 million
March 2012: $6.2 million
Monthly change: up 289 percent
Year-over-year change: up 258 percent
Seven-year monthly high: $47.3 million, December 2009
Seven-year monthly low: $1.1 million, November 2008
Ferndale building permit values
February 2013: $1.9 million
January 2013: $2.5 million
February 2012: $0.2 million
Monthly change: down 24 percent
Year-over-year change: up 850 percent
Six-year monthly high: $12.9 million, July 2007
Six-year monthly low: $0.2 million, January 2009
Whatcom County construction jobs
February 2013: 5,000
January 2013: 4,900
February 2012: 5,200
Monthly change: up 2 percent
Year-over-year change: down 3.8 percent
Seven-year monthly high: 8,600, September 2006
Seven-year monthly low: 4,900, January 2013
Whatcom County unemployment
Whatcom February 2013: 8.6 percent
Whatcom January 2013: 8.4 percent
Whatcom February 2012: 8.6 percent
State February 2013 (seasonably adjusted): 7.5 percent
Nation February 2013 (seasonably adjusted): 7.7 percent.
Seven-year monthly high: 10.4 percent, February 2010
Seven-year monthly low: 3.7 percent, October 2007
Sources: Washington State Department of Revenue; U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Western District of Washington; Cross-Sell; Washington State Department of Licensing; Northwest Multiple Listing Service; Whatcom County Planning and Development Services; Bank of Canada; Port of Bellingham; RealtyTrac; Center For Economics and Business Research, Western Washington University; City of Bellingham; Washington State Employment Security Department.
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