Strengthening the Base
Whatcom County, WA

Goal 1: Build upon and strengthen Whatcom County’s economic base.

Top Sectors

The graphics below show multiple ways of looking at Whatcom County's economy. First, the graphic on the left shows the number of registered businesses by industry in descending order. The largest number of registered businesses in Whatcom fall into construction, retail, and professional, scientific, and technical services. In the second graphic, we see the industries in descending order by the number of employees. The industries with the largest number of workers in Whatcom County are retail, health care, and social assistance and manufacturing. Finally, the third graphic shows annual payroll (in millions) by industry. The largest payrolls are held by manufacturing, construction, and healthcare and social assistance.

Export Industries

Export industries are a key component of an economic base. Exports can contribute to economic growth in several important ways: by offering businesses and people more markets to distribute and sell their goods, by employing greater numbers of people to account for increased output volumes, and by directly increasing the amount of external revenue flowing into Whatcom County. A diversified portfolio of exporting industries also contributes to improved economic resiliency.


In Whatcom County, there are issues of affordability, accessibility, and availability of housing, as well as increasing housing insecurity (ability to retain safe and secure housing) and houselessness. These problems have a direct, negative impact on Whatcom’s local economy, employers, and residents.

As the figure below illustrates, single-family homes have made up a large portion of housing permits issued in Whatcom County since 1980. Only very recently, in 2019 did the number of multifamily permits (1005) or permits for five plus units in multi-family structure (892) exceed single-family permits issued (816). The number of permits for two, three, and four unit multi-family structures has actually decreased since 1980 from 177 permits to 113 in 2019.

As the graphic below illustrates, many households are cost burdened by housing costs, including households with and without a mortgage as well as rental households. However, for rental households, close to 50% are paying 30% or more of their income to rent. This is problematic not only for the families and households but for the local economy because cost burdened households do not have much, if any, discretionary income.


For low-income families, affordable quality childcare is in short supply. Childcare is one of the largest expenses for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) families. If families are not eligible for a subsidy, the United Way (2020) finds that nearly 30% of their budget goes to childcare expense. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends no more than 7% of household income be spent on childcare for low-income families (Smith et al. 2020).

Childcare is also a problem for dual earner households, as the expense is high and the wait lists are long. According to the Child Care Aware and the Opportunity Council (2019, p.8) one year of early child care for an infant, toddler, or pre-schooler in Whatcom County is more expensive than annual tuition plus books at Western Washington University or Whatcom Community College.

By 2025, the Center for Economic and Business Research (2021) estimates that Whatcom County would need to increase their 0-5 childcare capacity by 5,817 and their school-age capacity by 6,252 to meet the Total Demand scenario.


The arcGIS tool below, developed by the City of Bellingham, shows the number of units built, in process, and permits issued by year for the Bellingham UGA. Many stakeholders were interested in expanding this map to the entire county so that we can better understand housing and permitting on a county-wide level.