When local businesses sneeze, the community catches a cold

March 25, 2016 – Letter from WBA President Tony Larson

If you are not part of the Whatcom Business Alliance leadership network, I invite and encourage you to get on board. Next month will mark our 4th anniversary. The WBA was founded as a nonprofit, nonpartisan economic development organization with the primary mission of facilitating business success and community prosperity.

And, to take a leadership role in local business advocacy.

We’ve been doing exactly that, and also growing our leadership network and working to educate and engage business owners, executives, and community leaders on issues that have a direct impact on the health and prosperity of our community moving forward. If you believe in our mission, I urge you to join our efforts.

Every issue that impacts the health of local business also impacts the health of our community. You may have heard the expression, “When our businesses sneeze, the community catches a cold.” According to a recent WBA business survey of more than 200 local businesses the regulatory environment came up as the No. 1 impediment to business growth.

Businesses are beginning to sneeze.


In this edition you can read our analysis called “Regulations Gone Wild,” in which we ask the question: “Have we reached a tipping point?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but we have certainly reached something.

In the past, many business owners have complained about what they describe as a significant overreach by a number of regulatory authorities. However, many have been and remain unwilling to speak for the record about specifics. Many believe that if they speak out, they will be targeted for retribution. Or, that rocking the boat will damage their relationship with an agency and undermine efforts to find reasonable solutions to their challenges. I hear that more often than not. As a result, they typically choose to “keep a low profile,” or “fly under the radar.”

That might be changing. We might have arrived at the tipping point.

More business owners stepping up on-the-record to vocalize their specific concerns. That’s my hope, because if a problem is not identified specifically, it can’t be solved. In this edition a few from the business community have spoken up about specific challenges they face. One literally spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stand on principle and won. Let’s hope more will do the same.

On the other side of the coin you find policy makers and staff members of local bureaucracies. The rules makers and enforcers. The policy members are elected officials. It is important that they hear the concerns of all those that their decisions impact. It is also important for those who feel the impact to understand what the policy makers believe and why they do what they do.

On the other hand many staff members appear not to understand or they show little empathy for the concerns of those impacted. Their job is to interpret and enforce the rules. In many cases, common sense doesn’t apply. This disconnect needs a remedy. The WBA will work to facilitate this process by identifying the problems and by working respectfully with lawmakers to find solutions.



Every eight years or so, the County is required by law to update the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan – the guidebook for future land use planning and economic development. It consists of 11 chapters with 7 indices. It is a very thick, complicated document that impacts everyone in Whatcom County.

Language matters in this document. The difference between “may” and “shall” can mean the difference between yes and no for a new business location, an existing business expansion, a home getting built, more jobs, and much, much more.

While every industry in Whatcom County will be affected by the Comp Plan update, in late January the WBA hosted a breakfast meeting to inform businesses with direct ties to and interests in the heavy industrial zone at Cherry Point. The reason: some interest groups have stated goals of using the Comp Plan to “de-industrialize” Cherry Point. Their strategy is not one big thing, but rather death by a thousand cuts. Limit future expansion. Limit future opportunity. More rules. More difficulties. More costs. Downzoning.

We encouraged those companies to attend the Whatcom County Council meeting on Jan. 26 and share how they rely on the success of the output that comes from the Heavy Industrial-zoned area at Cherry Point: the direct and indirect impact on local wages, philanthropy, our tax base, volunteer giving to nonprofits, and the multiplier effect of these businesses throughout the county.

We offered the attending business leaders a look at the economic impact study that the WBA commissioned on this topic in late 2014. The business community engaged and the council chamber was packed. Our ask was that the Whatcom County Council recognize the Cherry Point Heavy Industrial Area as a valuable economic driver in the Comp Plan.

As I said, Cherry Point manufacturing is only one of many industries impacted by the Comp Plan update. As the process moves forward, the WBA will provide you with progress reports and calls-to-action if necessary. Thanks to all of you for paying attention to these issues that impact everyone in the county. Your voice is valuable and important.


In addition to the awards banquet March 23, we’ve got a number of upcoming events that provide an opportunity for you to learn, grow, and connect. Industry Tours, Whatcom Business Academy, President’s Club events, member appreciation activities, board presentations, Northwest Business Expo, Economic Forecast breakfast, and more. Go to our website and click on events to register you and your staff.

If you believe as we do that business success is the single most important driver of community and economic prosperity, and you want to be part of facilitating local business success, including yours, then I encourage you to join our leadership network. If you would like to find out the many ways you can engage, give me a call and I’ll buy you a coffee and share some of the exciting things the WBA is doing.