Far from just a public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also been a unique economic crisis. From the start, leadership in Washington state took to the helm and played a pivotal role in helping businesses and residents navigate the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
The Washington State Department of Commerce jumped into action to deliver aid and support companies, local governments, Tribes, nonprofits and households across the state. We recently spoke with Chris Green, Assistant Director of the Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness at the Washington State Department of Commerce. In the following interview, Green shares his perspective on the lessons learned and health of the state’s business climate.
We’re approaching the two-year mark for the COVID-19 pandemic. As you reflect on Washington’s handling of the unprecedented challenge, how would you say the state fared compared to others?
CHRIS GREEN: It’s difficult to compare Washington with other states in this regard. The pandemic has placed significant strains on all state and local governments, but no two are the same. That said, we are proud that we have been able to leverage federal and state funds to help the businesses most affected by public health orders. Some industries will face challenges for years to come, notably hospitality and tourism. We’re fortunate to have a very diverse economy, so the pandemic didn’t cause as much widespread economic havoc as it could have. But there’s a lot of work to do as we look to the recovery and rebuilding of those sectors most affected by this global event, especially our small businesses.
What steps did Washington take to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on businesses?
GREEN: The first step was to take the necessary measures to protect our citizens from a public health crisis where information was scarce. I think history will show that we successfully kept our residents safe while keeping the economy going. Small businesses were affected disproportionally, and the state initiated Working Washington grants in excess of $526 million to help these businesses, particularly in rural and historically underserved communities. We also created a new Small Business Flex Fund to help businesses restart, offering low-interest, long-term loans. The pandemic created a unique opportunity to partner with other organizations, government agencies, non-profits and the private sector in ways we have never done before. This has created a lasting network of organizations that can provide technical support and assistance in our communities going forward. This has allowed us to put boots on the ground in communities that were often overlooked economically from a state perspective.
Of course, the wheels of commerce continue to turn – even in a global pandemic. What companies or sectors are growing and continuing to invest in the state?
GREEN: It’s challenging to make sweeping statements since some sectors have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic while others are still at the beginning of their recovery stage. For instance, our technology and life science sectors experienced growth during the last two years while the hospitality sector continues to struggle. Manufacturing and retail are still experiencing global supply chain disruptions that they are still working through. To effectively gauge our recovery, Commerce developed a new dashboard to track key metrics, giving us multiple ways to measure the recovery from different views, including comparing Washington with other states. It is located at www.commerce.wa.gov.
What are some of the primary concerns companies have in this landscape and how is the state helping to address these?
GREEN: Access to knowledge and capital continues to be a concern. We’re working to address these concerns both from a global innovation and competitiveness and a small business standpoint. To help entrepreneurs start small businesses and small business owners restart and recover, we created a series of tools on our MyStartup365.com website, including an Entrepreneur Academy and Restart Academy. ScaleUp has been another success story, allowing businesses to master key competencies related to human resources, operations and finances. Hundreds of companies across the state have been able to take advantage of these free programs. To maintain and improve position on producing the global innovative products of the future, we’ve also invested in new models for economic development, including our Innovation Cluster Acceleration Program, aimed at providing the launch of new cluster organizations across various industries to bring together private, public and academic sectors along with small businesses and capital fund managers. This is a somewhat new approach to the well known cluster concept and we’re also pleased to see more programming from the federal level in and around this space.
What lessons were learned through navigating this pandemic and how will those lessons improve the state’s business climate?
GREEN: Even though this pandemic put tremendous strains on our economy, we have learned some valuable lessons that will have a lasting impact. This includes the importance of collaboration with key partners, many who operated in silos before COVID.
These partnerships will continue to strengthen our economy going forward, providing investors and businesses with a coordinated network of experts who can connect them to technical assistance, funding opportunities, programming and knowledge. Additionally, the pandemic has made our businesses more robust and more resilient. When times are good, it’s easy to overlook activities that may increase risk. COVID has caused many companies to reassess historic vulnerabilities that either put their operations at unnecessary risk or were roadblocks to exponential growth.
What do you most want corporate decision-makers and site selectors to understand about doing business in Washington – both today and into the future?
GREEN: Washington has a long history of creating amazing things that have changed the world, from affordable jet travel to the way we think about coffee. We have a culture of collaboration and creativity that I think is pretty unique in the U.S., if not the world. We continually rank at the top of business surveys, such as Startup Genome’s recent ranking that placed Seattle’s startup ecosystem at No. 10 in the world! Our focus on equity, diversity and inclusivity going forward will create new opportunities for investors and businesses that want to be at the leading edge of their respective sectors. We are blessed to have a diverse, resilient economy that can absorb changes in the world economy and even benefit from them.
Is there anything specific you’d like to highlight about the state’s COVID-19 response or recovery?
GREEN: I would say equity and resiliency are two of our main areas of focus in the year to come. We have a unique opportunity to create an inclusive economy that allows every resident the chance to start and operate a successful business, earn a living wage and contribute to the state’s recovery and growth growing forward. There is a lot of work to do on this, but I think that our economy and its many partners are well-positioned for significant growth in the years to come.