For those who like slow, steady improvement with few surprises in their local economy, 2014 fit the bill.
The economic data shows a bit of stability in 2014 after years spent climbing out of the ditch following the 2008 financial meltdown. Unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosure notifications steadily declined while home, car and retail sales were either close to or slightly more than the 2013 numbers.
Business stories that made the list of top overall Whatcom County news stories were the growth in beer breweries, marijuana stores opening and the sockeye salmon run.
The top local business stories in 2014, in no particular order:
Weakening Canadian dollar impacts retail sales
The rise of the U.S. dollar and dropping oil prices are factors in a weaker Canadian dollar, which was at 85 cents compared to the U.S. dollar in mid-December. Throughout 2013 the Canadian dollar was usually around 95 cents compared to the U.S. dollar.
Retail sales at Bellingham’s big box stores steadily declined in the first half of the year, according to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Southbound border traffic into Whatcom County is off last year’s pace by 1.4 percent.
If oil prices remain low, it’s possible the Canadian dollar could further weaken. It will be interesting to see how shoppers from British Columbia react to a weaker loonie: Some products in the U.S. will remain a good deal, but it could also mean a shift in fortunes in which Americans find value visiting British Columbia.
Several longtime businesses close
After 108 years as a retailer in Bellingham, Griggs Office Supply closed its doors for good at the end of June.
The downtown business was operated for three generations. Donel Griggs ran the business since 1984 before deciding to retire. It was known for in recent years for its hard-to-find office supplies, including typewriter ribbon.
It was one of several longtime businesses to close this year, including the Shrimp Shack, Trek Video and Billy McHale’s.
More than 50 retail businesses closed in Whatcom County in 2014, which is a little higher than in recent years. Most of the local business that closed in 2014 tended to be small, family owned operations.
Bellis Fair remodel and the arrival of several popular stores
After an extensive multi-million dollar remodel in 2013, Bellis Fair spent much of 2014 attracting some popular national tenants.
H&M, Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, Villa Italian Kitchen and Big Orange were among the new tenants that opened at the mall this year. Designer Shoe Warehouse is currently remodeling its portion of the former movie theater space and is planning to open in April.
Safeway and Taco Bell arriving at Sunset Square
Sunset Square received a much-needed boost when it was announced that Safeway was going into the former Sunset Square Cost Cutter.
The grocer is taking about 67,000 square feet of space and is expected to the be ready by the end of January. The company is investing about $13 million to remodel the building and put in a gas station nearby.
At press time, Taco Bell was nearing completion of its new building, which is in the southeast corner of Sunset Square.
Boat company rebounds after September fire
It was a difficult year for Northwest Marine Industries, but the boat builder is getting back on track.
A fire destroyed its facility at 5375 Labounty Drive in September, putting 22 employees out of work. The owners — RonWright, Mark Wright and Ryan Binning — immediately went to work and found a new, bigger space, signing a lease with the Port of Bellingham to go into a 20,000-square-foot warehouse at the Fairhaven Marine Industrial Park, which is near the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. By mid-November the company was in its new space making pilot-house boats, which include SeaSport, C-dory Osprey and Skagit Orca product lines.
Grocery Outlet coming to Ferndale
With the announcement earlier this month that the Ferndale Cost Cutter was closing, the community also received news that half the building wouldn’t be vacant for long.
Grocery Outlet announced that it was entering the Ferndale market, taking about 20,000 square feet of space in the building, which is in the North Sound Center on Labounty Drive. The Grocery Outlet expects to be in the space around mid-2015 after making some improvements to the building.
Other improvements will be made to the retail center as well, including redesigning some of the parking area and changing the entrance at Labounty Drive.
A great year for Whatcom agriculture
Whatcom County farmers had one of those rare years when weather and prices both cooperated, giving many of them a chance to save money and pay down debts.
Local raspberry and blueberry growers had an outstanding harvest this year, helped by mild temperatures and plenty of summer sunshine. Raspberry growers harvested 68.7 million pounds in Whatcom County, topping the previous record set in 2011. According to the Lynden Tribune, the Washington Blueberry Commission estimates this year’s blueberry harvest in Whatcom County to be 36 million pounds, well ahead of the 2013 total of 28 million pounds.
Dairy farmers were able to fetch good prices for milk throughout 2014, well above average.
The uniform price for 100 pounds of milk in the Pacific Northwest was slightly more than $24 in September , according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s up from around $19 a year ago. The price hung around the $20-24 range in the first three quarters of 2014.
The rise in dairy prices is a big deal for Whatcom County’s economy, as this area produces around 85 million pounds of milk a month.
Opening of Burlington store
Burlington, a national company known for its coats, shoes and clothing, entered the Bellingham market by filling a large commercial space on Meridian Street.
The new store occupies about 55,000 square feet of space at 4131 Meridian St. and employed 115 people at its Sept. 26 opening. It filled a big hole in the retail center, which is also home to several small businesses.
Allegiant drops Bellingham-Hawaii flights
After less than two years, Allegiant Air decided to end its flights from Bellingham to to Hawaii.
An Allegiant airline official said it was responding to market demand. The decision was a blow to the airport, which finished a major remodel earlier in the year and partly relies on ticket sales to help pay back the bonds.
Alaska Airlines continues to offer regular flights between Bellingham and Honolulu and Maui.
Changes in sporting goods store industry
Early in 2014 Bellingham received a major makeover in the sporting goods sector. Three stores — Sportsman Chalet, Mayberry Sporting Goods and Big 5 Sporting Goods at Bellis Fair — closed in the first month of the year. Big 5 kept its larger store on 106 Stuart St. (near Walmart) open.
Given all the outdoor enthusiasts that live in this region, sporting goods is big business. In Bellingham $59.1 million was spent at sporting goods and hobby stores in 2013, according to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue.