It’s time to take a break from the Retail Tipsheet to reflect on the biggest business stories impacting the Whatcom County economy in 2015.
The trend in recent years is a mix of events that would both strengthen and weaken the local economy. This year continued to follow that trend, as layoffs and closures were mixed in with business expansions and new companies entering the market.
The expansion and sudden contraction of Haggen and the curtailing of the Alcoa Intalco Works smelter were so huge they made The Bellingham Herald’s list of top overall local news stories of 2015. But plenty of other things happened in the local economy, many of which will continue to have an impact in 2016. In no particular order, here are the top local business stories of 2015:
CH2M HILL LEAVES BELLINGHAM
With oil prices remaining low and no signs they will rise soon, engineering firm CH2M Hill decided to cut back in that industry, which meant the closure of its 120-employee Bellingham office in December.
This is a significant blow to the Bellingham economy because engineering and professional service jobs like those at CH2M Hill paid upwards of $60,000 a year. It also meant the end of an office that has been around locally under different names since 1974. Heading into 2016, other Bellingham companies tied to the oil and gas industry — particularly those with ties to Alaska — will need to adjust as well if energy prices remain low.
NOOKSACK RIVER CASINO CLOSES
While there were signs that the Nooksack River Casino in Deming might close, it happened suddenly on Thursday, Dec. 10.
The tribe had been in court with lenders for years over millions in unpaid debts that were used to renovate the casino, making the building’s future unclear. The closure happened overnight with little or no notice to employees.
The future of the building itself is also unclear as a Whatcom County Superior Court tries to determine whether a company can collect on unpaid loans for future uses of the building.
WHOLE FOODS IS COMING
With all of the changes happening at Haggen, one thing that has been flying below the radar is the upcoming arrival of Whole Foods.
The grocer announced in February that it was putting in a store in the Lakeway Center, with a scheduled opening in June 2016.
Last summer the grocer submitted plans for $4 million of remodeling work at the former Market at Lakeway building at 1030 Lakeway Drive. Work includes putting in a pizza restaurant, a coffee/juice bar and a grocery section that includes meat, seafood, dairy, wine and bakery departments.
CANADIAN DOLLAR TUMBLES
Longtime Whatcom County residents are used to the Canadian dollar strengthening and weakening, but what made this year different is how fast and how far the loonie fell.
A year ago the Canadian dollar was around 86 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, having spent a stretch from 2009-2014 above 90 cents. The Canadian dollar took a fast tumble in early 2015, followed by another one during the summer as oil and prices for other commodities Canada exports remained low. As of last week the loonie was around 71 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, an 11-year low.
The weakening Canadian dollar has meant a slowdown in traffic for many Whatcom County retailers, particularly for big-box stores. Local retail sales at those stores were down more than 10 percent in the first half of 2015. Overall Whatcom retail grew, however, as items typically purchased by local residents — new cars, building materials, etc. —increased, according to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue.
The Canadian dollar is expected to remain weak at least into the first half of 2016, so it appears Whatcom County residents will continue to have no problem finding parking at stores or getting gas.
VACANCIES REMAIN LOW, MORE APARTMENTS COMING
With the vacancy rate for home rental units in Bellingham around 1 percent and rent steadily rising throughout 2015, much of the new construction this year has involved building new apartments.
Through November, permits were issued to build 530 multifamily units in Bellingham, the most since 2005. Many of the new apartment projects are around Western Washington University, but projects moved forward in downtown Bellingham and the north part of the city.
Will the new construction be enough to ease the apartment shortage? Last fall the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies did a survey of apartment vacancy rates. Whatcom County had the lowest rate among those metro areas surveyed, coming in at 0.2 percent. The state average was 3.4 percent.
GAS PRICES FALL TO BELOW $2 A GALLON
Stung by $4 a gallon gas in recent years, filling up this year came as a pleasant surprise to many drivers as prices dropped dramatically and stayed low throughout much of the year.
The drop in gas prices was also good news for local retailers, because it meant local residents had extra cash to spend. That may have helped offset some of the declines from the corresponding drop in the Canadian dollar.
The typical local trend for gas prices is that they will remain low in the early part of the year, rising in the spring. Unless the global market changes or West Coast refineries run into production problems, even the spring prices will remain lower than a few years ago. The average price for a gallon of gas in Bellingham was around $2.43 heading into the Christmas holiday weekend, according to AAA Washington’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.
LOCAL BUSINESS OWNER WINS BIG TRADEMARK CASE
It was a dispute pitting a huge global company against small business, with the underdog emerging the victor.
Bellingham businesswoman Christine Palmerton and her Nautigirl company found herself in a trademark battle against Nautica. The clothing giant contended that Palmerton’s company name and logo was similar to its own, creating brand confusion. Nautica wanted the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to bar her from using it, even though Palmerton already had her company name and design trademarked.
With Nautigirl’s case helped by students at Suffolk University Law School in Boston doing the work pro bono, the court ruled in favor of Palmerton in October.
While the win is big for a Bellingham business, it also could have wider importance for small companies that are hit with cease-and-desist orders from large companies that are too aggressive in protecting a trademark.
HUGE STORAGE FACILITY ARRIVES IN LYNDEN
When Preferred Freezer Services decided to build a huge cold storage facility in Lynden last March, it came with a caveat: The project needed to be completed within a few months to have a chance to handle the fall harvest.
The company was able to complete the 330,000-square-foot facility by September, and customers were lining up to put their product into cold storage.
The $32 million Lynden facility is on Main Street, west of Guide Meridian. The company and city understood the work would be under a tight construction timeline. Within days, up to 40 trucks an hour were taking gravel to the site, averaging around 15,000 tons a day.
The new facility will provide a close option for area farmers, who ship most of their harvest across the country.
ALL AMERICAN MARINE TO GET BIGGER FACILITY
A local company that builds high-speed catamarans needed to expand and was able to do so without having to leave the Bellingham waterfront.
All American Marine has spent this year working with the Port of Bellingham to develop a new facility so it could handle more contracts and hire more employees. By December the company agreed to a plan that would move it from its current Fairhaven site closer to a larger facility near the Squalicum Harbor.
The 45-employee company expects to be in its new 40,000-square-foot facility at the end of 2016, allowing the company to add up to 30 more employees.
WAPLES MERCANTILE BUILDING REMODELED
After years of being a burned-out shell, the Waples Mercantile Building is breathing new life into downtown Lynden.
With the Inn at Lynden expected to open on Monday, Dec. 28, and two of five new retail tenants already open, a burst of activity is expected to provide a lift to the downtown district. Boosting the building’s chances is the companies going in — Village Books, Avenue Bread, Drizzle, Bellingham Baby Co. and Overflow Taps — either have well-known local business ties or in Overflow’s case a strong Lynden ownership connection.