WHATCOM ECONOMY: Data lacking in ‘best of’ lists involving Bellingham

Why is Bellingham so highly ranked and revered by so many people and publications?

Sure, the Puget Sound and mountains are nearby, there is easy access to the rest of the region up and down Interstate 5, there is a vibrant small business community, a booming housing market and a wide-range of cultural amenities. At least, that is what we believe – it is what we promote – it is what we talk about. But is it true? Is Bellingham a unique and bright beacon to the region or is it more similar to all the other communities than we care to acknowledge.

According to, Bellingham is ranked eighth out of the ten best downtowns in the United States. The rating is attributed to the 1,000 new residences constructed downtown along with renovated store fronts and an enhanced visual appearance downtown.

The 1,000 new residences downtown may not be what you would expect from a top ranked downtown district. A significant portion of downtown housing is 1,120 units owned by the Bellingham Housing Authority as affordable housing.

The article states that local businesses in Bellingham create more jobs than other communities and that the buy local movement has made the economy robust. According to the Washington Employment Security Department 50.8 percent of establishments in Whatcom County employ 1-4 workers as compared to Skagit County where these small establishments make up 50.1 percent of all establishments compared to King County with 53.6 percent. This is not a significant statistical difference. In fact, most communities would reflect similar numbers.

The local business story. We have many locally owned businesses but we also have a vibrant collection of stores in our commercial district including a significant number of big box retailers. Do locally owned businesses pay more? Provide better benefits? Keep employees longer? Attract more businesses to the community? It is mostly unknown although statistics generally demonstrate that smaller businesses pay less and offer less to employees. But we really do not know.

Buy Local. Bellingham definitely has a strong buy local movement. But does this make the city more livable than one that does not? How do we define what local is? Many products have many sub-units that are manufactured all over the world and then sold in numerous small locally owned businesses. Not many products are actually made by hand with materials grown or produced in Bellingham. So what makes Bellingham so unique in this buy local movement? Is it the actual product that needs to be local or is simply having a higher profit margin enough?

When it comes to locally owned business, the data is simply not present for what percentage of downtown businesses would be universally considered small and local. It might be helpful for us to get beyond appealing narratives that have little or no foundation in the data so we can focus on leveraging our real strengths.

Bellingham is a wonderful place to call home, but it may have little to do with the narrative that is told. The Center for Economic and Business Research at WWU conducts analysis to help businesses, non-profits and government agencies make informed decisions. Learn more at Have a question about our economy? Send us an e-mail to