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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Survey shows Whatcom County’s small businesses are struggling

Approximately 10,000 small businesses are working to stay afloat during the stay at home order

Outside of The Shakedown in 2018. // Photo by Lili McMurtrey

By Hailee Wickersham

The Port of Bellingham’s Regional Economic Partnership released results from its survey in March outlining the economic challenges for small businesses in Whatcom County during the pandemic. 

After the county declared COVID-19 an emergency on March 12, the Port of Bellingham worked with partners in the community such as the Chamber of Commerce and Western’s Small Business Development Center to reach out to small businesses. 

The survey, open from March 26 to April 24, received responses from 765 businesses. Over half of the businesses reported not having the capability to work from home, according to the results of the survey.

Certified business advisor Eric Grimstead at Western’s Small Business Development Center reports that approximately 10,000 small businesses operate in Whatcom County. 

The report found that, of the businesses that replied, they supported about 12,279 seasonal and year-round jobs within the county. 

Over half of the businesses that replied reported having already laid off some or all of their staff. 

Additionally, another 25.5% of the small business respondents said at the time of their response that if the current orders and situation continue, they will need to do layoffs in the next two to four weeks. 

Jennifer Noveck, the Port of Bellingham’s Research and Communications Manager, said she used her background in research to help construct the survey. 

Small businesses answered questions such as “Are you currently open?” and “What actions do you believe the government can take to help your business address COVID-19 impacts?” 

“We modeled a lot of our questions after King County’s survey. So we looked at other agencies to see what they were doing and coordinated with our partners about specific questions,”  Noveck said. 

Of the businesses that responded to the survey, almost half were from the service industry. 

“One of the important things to remember in our community is that we are a very retail and service industry-oriented economy, so much depends on this industry,” said Guy Occhiogrosso, president of Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce. 

The report stated that the service sector often requires in-person meetings and because of this, it may be disproportionately impacted by stay-at-home orders.

Grimstead said that businesses most at risk are those in the bar and nightclub scene, as they are the last scheduled to open.

Bellingham City Councilmember Hollie Huthman is also a small business owner of the well-known local music venue, The Shakedown. 

Huthman said the venue, which hosts 100 people, has been closed since March 12 and  furloughed all of its employees. 

“We’ve applied for everything that we possibly can but there really hasn’t been assistance for live music venues,” Huthman said. “You have to be able to pay your rent and you have to absolutely continue to pay your insurance in case something else might happen.”

Huthman has been working alongside another council member, Daniel Hammil, to start a conversation on the federal level about residential and commercial rent and mortgage forgiveness.

“Then there would be no sense of needing to open before it felt safe,” Huthman said. “I would really love to, if everything was financially secure, to wait to open until we can operate at 100% and all of our employees feel comfortable.”

The survey found many small businesses were opting away from additional loans because they were already carrying high debt before the COVID-19 outbreak. Additionally, the Regional Economic Partnership, an associate development organization of the Port of Bellingham, found that businesses needed direct cash transfers and grants quickly. 

“The need is immense and time is not on our side. Delays in relief are exacerbating the situation,” the report concluded.  

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