“Throughout our 100-year history, the chamber has always worked to improve conditions for our Bellingham and Whatcom County business community,” says Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Guy Occhiogrosso. “It has always been our initiative to grow healthy businesses, attract quality employers and a talented workforce, and truly help build a community with a strong sense of place.”
Laying a Strong Foundation
In 1903, the Fairhaven Chamber of Commerce became the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce when the surrounding townships of Fairhaven and Whatcom were consolidated and formed the city of Bellingham. The Bellingham Chamber of Commerce’s first president, Lin Hadley, took the reins in 1904, taking on the task of becoming the voice of a growing business community.
The early days of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce saw it function more as a government entity with its focus on key issues such as tolls, roads and the ferries. They organized the Civilian Defense Committee which was prepared to respond to local emergencies including Geiger counter training by the Atomic Energy Commission. The chamber also served as the Better Business Bureau before there was a BBB. With a small government in the county, this local chamber of commerce was definitely the go-to organization for anyone nearby looking for information and support.
Even in those early days, the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce always held economic development high on its priority list.
The focus back in the 1900’s was to attract new residents to the area to fill vacant jobs within the mining community. This effort would also go a long way in building a successful and thriving business community.
It was in 1928 that the chamber advocated for the continuation of the ferry service between the San Juan Islands and Whatcom County. Also during this time, the Aviation Committee began its exploration into attracting “aeroplanes” to the county, fully aware that future prosperity would possibly come to the community.
Over the years, the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce continued to ensure that new businesses, new industry and new growth were a constant theme.
Ferries, Planes and Automobiles
During the 1950s, through the efforts of the Airport Committee and in cooperation with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the first airshow was sponsored for the purposes of gathering information about customs practices. As a result of that air show, enough information was gathered and a bill was introduced to the United States Congress to provide that certain aircraft may travel between the US and Canada without requiring the owners or operators to reimburse the US for extra compensation paid to custom officers and employees. This bill, HR5501, was passed in 1957, paving the way for improved cross-border commerce.
In 1966 the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce lobbied that the Alaskan Marine Highway place its ferry terminal to the lower 48 states in Bellingham. Those efforts paid off in 1989 when the new Alaska terminal debuted in Fairhaven, bringing enormous exposure and tourism potential to the area. Part of that effort meant the mailing of 20,000 brochures to Alaska residents, communicating the benefits of Bellingham and the placement of the terminal.
Another major event spearheaded by the chamber involved the creation of the Enhanced Drivers License. Under the leadership of former chamber president Ken Oplinger, the passing of the Enhanced Drivers License paved the way for a more streamlined approach to efficiently cross from the United States into Canada and back again.
With each new president, the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce has shifted its focus here and there, but the original objectives of economic development and community and business advocacy have always remained at the forefront of this organization’s mission.
Many people believe that the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce is supported by local tax dollars, but this is not the case. The fact of the matter is that the Chamber of Commerce is an independent nonprofit organization solely supported by member dues and funds raised during chamber-hosted events.
Continuing Traditions, Adapting for the Future
Under the leadership of President/CEO Guy Occhiogrosso, the priorities of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce have remained focused on the original intent of the chamber, with activities addressing the current issues of homelessness, accessible housing and the lack of affordable housing.
Through the Whatcom County Jobs Summit of 2012, community leaders came together to discuss how to increase the number of jobs in the county and which industries should be specifically targeted.
That discussion continues today with emphasis on identifying opportunities to close the gap between family wage jobs and the cost of living in the area. One question that is often at the forefront of chamber discussions is: What types of jobs and industries should we be attracting to build the community and provide opportunities for business? What industries could we attract that will help us retain graduates from WWU, WCC and BTC?
Economic Gardening, a term referring to finding ways for current local businesses to grow and prosper, is also a current focus of the chamber, as it is as important to attract the new as it is to grow the existing.
While the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce has been a part of some history-making events, its dedication to a strong business community continues to be at the core of this organization. After all, when local businesses thrive, so does the community.
For more information about the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, visit the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce online.
Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce
119 N Commercial St #110
Bellingham, WA 98225