Market Report: Economic data points toward some recovery in Whatcom County

As Whatcom County attempts to shake off another cold winter, economic activity appears to be warming up.

With the first quarter of 2012 out of the way, the latest economic data indicates a recovery is taking place, particularly compared to a year ago. The local unemployment rate, home foreclosures and bankruptcies are down, while retail, new car and home sales are up.

There's also more confidence in starting a small business in Whatcom County. In the first three months of the year, more than 30 storefront businesses opened in Whatcom County, significantly more than the same period last year. I've spotted 15 retail closures in the first quarter of 2012, two fewer than the number of closures counted a year earlier.

While some segments of the economy are on the upswing, others continue to struggle. Employment in the construction sector continues to lag near levels last seen before the construction boom; and overall home prices continue to decline, suggesting that correction is not yet complete. While lower, the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent.

The second quarter in Whatcom County tends to be one of growth; as the weather improves, the agriculture, construction and tourism sectors tend to get busier. We'll soon see if that starts showing up in the economic data.

Other significant events that took place in March and the first week of April:

Port of Bellingham Executive Director Charlie Sheldon resigned and the port commission agreed to what amounts to a severance package during a dramatic public meeting Tuesday, April 3. Commissioners Scott Walker and Jim Jorgensen voted in favor of the separation agreement; Mike McAuley voted against it. Rob Fix, chief financial officer at the port, was appointed interim executive director.

Sargento Foods Inc. announced that it plans to close its Bellingham waterfront facility, which would mean the loss of 54 jobs locally. According to a company press release, the plan is to cease operations at the 65,000-square-foot facility it leases at Bellingham Cold Storage in the next nine to 16 months, with a final closing date to be announced later this spring. The decision to close the facility was due to several factors, including the plant's primary customer not renewing its contract with Sargento. The contract expires at the end of the year.

Whatcom County's unemployment rate rose in February, but it appears to have more to do with people re-entering the labor market rather than with job loss. Last month, Whatcom's unemployment rate was 8.5 percent, up from a revised rate of 8.1 percent in January, according to the State Employment Security Department.

Former local banking executive Peggy Zoro recently began work as executive director of the Northwest Economic Council. She replaces interim executive director Kim Loveall Price.

A Washington state regulatory agency has accused prominent Bellingham commercial real estate agent Ron Bennett of making misrepresentations to convince investors to loan money to his company. The Department of Financial Institutions contends that Bennett still owes 134 investors a total of $23 million in unpaid promissory notes, which had interest rates of 6 to 12 percent.

Fred Meyer confirmed it is trying to acquire a site for a new store in Lynden. A Fred Meyer spokesperson said the company wouldn't provide details about the location or its overall Lynden plan until a real estate deal is final.


Whatcom County quarterly retail sales

Q4 2011: $828.1 million

Q3 2011: $797.7 million

Q4 2010: $789.1 million

Quarterly change: up 3.8 percent

Year-over-year change: up 4.1 percent

Six-year quarterly high: $873.4 million, fourth quarter, 2007

Six -year quarterly low: $624.4 million, first quarter 2009

Whatcom County bankruptcies

February 2012: 65

January 2012: 63

February 2011: 74

Monthly change: up 3.2 percent

Year-over-year change: down 12.2 percent

Six -year monthly high: 83, February 2010

Six -year monthly low: 11, February 2006

Whatcom County auto sales

February 2012: 290

Janary 2012: 274

February 2011: 233

Monthly change: up 5.8 percent

Year-over-year change: up 24.5 percent

Six-year monthly high: 553, May 2006

Six-year monthly low: 140, December 2008

Whatcom County residential sales

March 2012: 186

February 2012: 128

March 2011: 162

Monthly change: up 45.3 percent

Year-over-year change: up 14.8 percent

Six -year monthly high: 398, August 2007

Six-year monthly low: 104, February 2009

Unincorporated Whatcom County building permit values

February 2012: $3 million

January 2012: $2.6 million

February 2011: $3.8 million

Monthly change: down 10.3 percent

Year-over-year change: down 25.7 percent

Five-year monthly high: $65.3 million, July 2011

Five-year monthly low: $2.6 million, January 2012

Whatcom County foreclosuresFebruary 2012: 47

January 2012: 27

February 2011: 69

Monthly change: up 74 percent

Year-over-year change: down 31.9 percent

Six -year monthly high: 153, April 2009

Six-year monthly low: 17, September 2007

Median price of homes sold in Whatcom County

March 2012: $235,000

February 2012: $218,750

March 2011: $236,000

Monthly change: up 7.4 percent

Year-over-year change: down less than 1 percent

Six-year monthly high: $280,450, May 2007

Six-year monthly low: $208,000, November 2011

Whatcom homes newly listed for sale

March 2012: 364

February 2012: 265

March 2011: 386

Monthly change: up 37.4 percent

Year-over-year change: down 5.7 percent

Six-year monthly high: 707, May 2007

Six-year monthly low: 131, December 2011

Bellingham airport traffic

February 2012: 41,218

January 2012: 38,034

February 2011: 33,424

Monthly change: up 8.4 percent

Year-over-year change: up 23.3 percent.

Six-year monthly high: 51,421, July 2011

Six-year monthly low: 12,597, September 2010

Canadian dollar

End of March 2012: $1.00

End of February 2012: $1.00

End of March 2011: $1.03

Six-year high: $1.07, November 2007

Six-year low: 77 cents, March 2009

Southbound Canadian border crossings into Whatcom County

December 2011: 1,228,747

November 2011: 1,089,223

December 2010: 1,025,143

Monthly change: up 12.8 percent

Year-over-year change: up 19.9 percent

Five-year monthly high: 1,540,776 August 2011

Five-year monthly low: 645,792 October 2006

Bellingham building permit values

February 2012: $23.7 million

January 2012: $5 million

February 2011: $3.9 million

Monthly change: up 374 percent

Year-over-year change: up 508 percent

Six-year monthly high: $47.3 million, December 2009

Six-year monthly low: $1.1 million, November 2008

Ferndale building permit values

January 2012: $0.58 million

December 2011: $2.6 million

January 2011: $2.4 million

Monthly change: down 77.7 percent

Year-over-year change: down 75.8 percent

Five-year monthly high: $12.9 million, July 2007

Five-year monthly low: $0.2 million, January 2009

Whatcom County construction jobs

February 2012: 5,400

January 2012 (revised): 5,300

February 2011: 5,200

Monthly change: up 1.9 percent

Year-over-year change: up 3.8 percent

Six-year monthly high: 8,600, September 2006

Six-year monthly low: 5,000, December 2010

Whatcom County unemployment

Whatcom February 2012: 8.5 percent

Whatcom January 2012 (revised): 8.1 percent

Whatcom February 2011: 9.5 percent

State February 2012 (seasonably adjusted): 8.2 percent

Nation February 2012 (seasonably adjusted): 8.3 percent.

Six-year monthly high: 10.4 percent, February 2010

Six-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.