Walla Walla economy powers through recession

Bob Catsiff, the owner of Inland Octopus toy store in downtown Walla Walla, paused his hectic work at the cash register long enough to weigh in on the economy.

“Recession? What recession?” he said with a laugh. Although Catsiff did see the effects of the recession in a year of slower sales, in its first days at a new location next to Bright’s Candies, the store had attracted a curious crowd.

Looking at downtown Walla Walla this spring, the word “recession” doesn’t leap to mind. On a sunny Thursday, the sidewalks may not be packed with pedestrians, but a busy afternoon at downtown stores like Inland Octopus shows that Walla Walla retail hasn’t been shut down by the recession.

According to Pete Parcells, associate professor of economics at Whitman, the resilience of downtown reflects that of the Walla Walla economy as a whole. This comparative health has a lot to do with economic diversity.

“Walla Walla’s actually in pretty good shape, not just in how it’s ebbing or flowing now, but in how it’s able to withstand the ebbs and flows,” said Parcells. The Burearu of Labor Statistics’ unemployment rates back up this sense of relative health; in February 2010, the unemployment rate in Walla Walla County was the third lowest in the state.

According to Parcells, Walla Walla’s combination of government money, private industry and institutions of higher education keep the community’s economy more stable than that of many of its neighbors.

“Although business has slowed down some, none of it has dried up like it would have if we were more of a one-horse town,” Parcells said.

According to the Washington State Labor Department, government makes up the largest portion of industry in Walla Walla. David Warkentin, the President/CEO of the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, said that the large presence of government agencies has played a role in Walla Walla’s stability. Without more volatile industries, Walla Walla’s economy has resisted wild swings.

“That’s probably why you’re seeing a sense of optimism that’s a little surprising,” he said.

This optimism has carried over to other sectors of the economy, including the wine and tourism industry. Despite its large presence in downtown Walla Walla, however, the wine industry likely has not played a vital role during the recession, according to Parcells.

“The economic impact of the wine industry is positive, but it’s a lot smaller than people might think,” he said.

Warkentin believes that the wine industry will continue to hold a small place in Walla Walla’s economy, yet said that it does have significant, indirect effects felt during a recession and after.

“Before the revitalization of downtown and the arrival of the wine industry, I think that Walla Walla was a couple of pieces short of the puzzle, and the wine industry and tourism kind of rounded it out and improved the quality of life in Walla Walla,” said Warkentin. “I think the positive benefits go beyond the actual wages and exporting of product.”

At Sapolil Cellars, a Walla Walla Valley vineyard with a tasting room downtown, winemaker Abigail Schwerin knows that her industry’s role in Walla Walla is relatively small, and is constantly working to increase sales outside of the area and attract more visitors. During the recession, Sapolil has continued to see growth, something that Schwerin attributes to the vineyard’s youth and small size.

The vineyard hasn’t been oblivious to the economy, however. Winemaker Bill Schwerin, Abigail’s father, has noted the effects of economic hardship on the downtown area as a whole.

“We’ve seen it in terms of other businesses not being in businesses,” he said. Fewer businesses mean less traffic downtown, something that hurts everyone. “Empty shops propagate a negative attitude: it’s all perception.”

To combat these effects, the winemakers have broadened their approach to fit the market’s demands. The tasting room now hosts special events like music or spaghetti nights, and will soon serve beer and a selection of food.

“We’re finding new ways to bring people in and expand the base of our offerings,” said Abigail.

Michael Kline, co-owner of the Walla Walla Bread Company, changed his plans entirely when the economy slowed. Kline and his wife originally hoped to own a restaurant, but after evaluating Walla Walla’s needs, the couple opened the bakery in July of 2009.

“We didn’t want to miss the opportunity, and this was less of a risk financially,” said Kline.

Despite inevitable pitfalls and the added pressures of starting a business during a recession, the bakery’s sales have grown in the last three months.

“The local community has really rallied around us, which is something that I thought would take a lot longer to happen,” said Kline. “We’re loving what we’re doing.”

As businesses work harder for customers, those that adapt and find a following have been able to survive. According to Warkentin, the recession has forced many Walla Walla businesses to improve themselves, using this combination of adaptability and commitment.

“The businesses that got better as a result of the recession: and that’s really your choice in a recession, get better or go away: they will be stronger because of it,” he said.




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