Where is the “Strategy” in the Whatcom County Economic Development Strategy?

If like me you’ve recently read the Whatcom County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy published by the Whatcom Council of Governments in March of this year, you’re likely equally impressed by the wealth of data included in the report and explanation of Whatcom County’s economic progress over the last decade. Jack Louws, Robert Bromley, and Robert Wilson clearly did a great job on that, and I support their work. Unfortunately, the report falls short of providing any concrete solutions for reviving our county’s fragile economy. What it does do however, is provide a list of how we as a county are planning to spend our money, and that needs a lot more public input.

Conspicuously missing in this strategy paper is, well, the strategy actually. Because vision statements are not strategies; while they are certainly a good first step toward strategy creation, they are not concrete enough to be actionable.

As comprehensive as it is, this report is unfortunately already outdated and missing some of the more important callouts for which county constituents need concrete action right now; most notably how to address a weak Canadian exchange rate, one of the more critical problems we have faced since mid 2014. It’s clear this section was written in early 2014 when we were in fact enjoying some economic benefits from a strong Canadian Loonie. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth right now, as a strong US dollar has been pushing the Loonie down for almost a year now, causing it to fall below .90 since mid 2014, and for more than 6 months, hovering in the dangerously low .80s on the US dollar (as of 6/20/15 the Canadian dollar was at $.82 US). Addressing this situation is quite obviously one our biggest challenges right now, yet a strategy and concrete action plan for this is just plain missing from this report — our most important guiding document for the coming Comprehensive Plan Update.

What this report does provide however, is a list of development projects up for consideration by County Council and due for final decision in mid 2016.

This is the real meat of this report and what people need to be paying way more attention to right now. Some of these projects will rightly address some infrastructure buildout needed in the county, including stormwater management, wastewater treatment and other important issues. But I personally have a lot of questions about the big ticket projects under consideration. For example, is it absolutely necessary for us to spend $90,000,000 on a new county jail and holding facility? Seriously? I admit there may be some justification for some spending here, but do we really need to allocate $90M to something like this? I fail to see how more and better incarceration facilities will lead to longterm economic or environmental benefits to our county. And how about the $13,000,000 which will be allocated to a new Sheriff’s office? Again, do we really need this more than improved public schools, more retraining facilities to help unemployed county workers build the skills required for high tech manufacturing processes, more clean and renewable energy projects, more innovative wastewater treatment technologies, better systems for delivering water to serve our independant farmers? And now, thanks to decades of the use of Roundup in county lands and roadways, more money for biodiversity landscaping that will allow us to forever ban the use of toxic chemicals killing our soils and posioning our drinking water? Finally, why are really going to spend $20,000,000 on Railroad Safety Improvements? After all, shouldn’t BNSF Railway be paying for that? Allocating tax dollars to those projects only means that too few dollars will flow to more critical time-sensitive areas, and unfortunately too few county constituents are weighing in on this.

I’ve read a few articles criticizing Communitywise for not getting enough input on this Update. My personal feeling is that government only works when people participate, and the low public turnout to several well-advertised open house sessions is not the fault of Communitywise or the county. But it is true that the focus of those sessions was on vision exercises that did not provide a true forum for discussion of the key issues earlier in the public engagement process. Apparently the opportunity for discussion will come much later – in 2016 when the Plan is about to be officially updated. It doesn’t feel like true public engagement when the most important part of the public process is left for the very end.

The good news is that it’s not too late to weigh in on this critically important Update — right now while we still have a chance to decide how our county spends our tax money. A good place to start would be a review of the development project list on pages 86-101 of the above linked strategy report. Another good step would be to contact your county representatives with your input.

It’s never too late to change course on government policy until the votes have been counted. This is OUR county plan. You may not agree with how I think we should spend our money, but whatever your position, please get involved and let our county officials know what your priorities are.