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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Western to the rescue

By Sandra Rees-Bowen

Within Parks Hall of Western is the Center for Economic and Business Research, a small department that has a big impact. It helps businesses, tribal communities, governmental agencies and nonprofits in Whatcom County find positive alternatives for tough questions.

Clients come to the center to find solutions for problems that affect their respective communities or businesses. In other words, the center’s faculty and student employees assist clients by giving them the information they need to find creative solutions to local problems. They can also help clients receive faculty-led workshops, training and research or find student interns.

The department is directed by James McCafferty and Hart Hodges. They have different research areas and methodologies in the way they look at things; McCafferty’s undergraduate work was in journalism and Hodges has a Ph.D. in economics.

“We get to the same point, but we have very different frameworks to get there,” McCafferty said. “From the combination of journalism and academia in our analyses, you get some very interesting work from us.”

Some examples of their work include economic profiles, agricultural and business reports, and other forms of data analysis for practical use. The center has worked with organizations like the Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and the Whatcom Business Alliance, to name a couple.

“We like the people to have the tools to do their own thinking, so we present information in a way that allows people to synthesize the data and then think about, ‘So what?’” McCafferty said. “The challenge is to provide answers in the presentations, giving the people our research, which allows them to look at data from different perspectives. This approach can provide them with an appreciation for the different perspectives and how to move forward from this new knowledge.”

One project the center recently worked on was a report on the economic benefits from the farming sector to the community for Whatcom Business Alliance, which was published in 2017. The report measured the size and impact of the agricultural industry in the county.

“Identifying the economic impact of different industries in Whatcom County provides us with insight into where future economic development opportunities may come from. This gives us a benchmark to chart how different industries are doing over time and what we might be able to do to facilitate their success,” said Tony Larson, president of Whatcom Business Alliance.

With the analysis that the center provides, the clients are able to look for solutions to a problem. What they discover is that there are better choices to choose from rather than using the typical “cookie-cutter approach” too often used to fill in the blanks, McCafferty said.

The center has also worked on an analysis for the Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber requested a peer cities report that would compare Bellingham to cities of similar size, location and recreational amenities.

The Chamber wanted CEBR to find comparable cities that exist in the United States and then analyze the metrics for success. The conversation and process took around two years.

Right to left Claire Anderson, Justine Dombrowski and Joshua Grandbouche meet in Parks Hall to discuss ecenomic development for Whatcom County on Jan 9, 2018. // Photo by Mathew Roland

The five communities chosen for this analysis were mid-size college towns that had something similar to Bellingham. These communities had aspects such as a similar arts and culture scene, being close to a border, being close to water, having outdoor recreation or being close to other metropolitan areas, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the chamber.

Putting together these reports is not for the faint-hearted or those without a robust sense of curiosity.

Joshua Grandbouche, who graduated this past fall with a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics, is currently working with McCafferty on another analysis report.

“The amount of data that exists is surprising to me […] as well as how difficult it is to find sometimes,” Grandbouche said. “I have learned to navigate government data archives and have found really interesting things buried in the data that I think everyone could benefit from knowing, [such as] local job growth and what industries it’s in.”

According to McCafferty, these projects assist in providing students work opportunities and experiences. He said they pay both work-study students and non-work-study students to do the research.

But unlike traditional student employment, they do not have shifts and have to manage their own time to complete their assigned work. When those students graduate, many report back to McCafferty telling him that the discipline they learned by being assigned specific projects and deadlines has helped them in the companies who have employed them.

“Students come in, we train them and provide resources, but they have to come through the door with the ability to write, to think and fashion arguments,” McCafferty said. “We have some really interesting and fascinating discussions in our office because of this.”

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