[VIDEO] WEDA Conference 2023: Economic Development Strategies for Partnerships and Growth Post-COVID

As emergency funding initiatives from the COVID-19 pandemic draw to a close, there’s a lot of talk about how to proceed with funding efforts moving forward. A group of government and economic development experts headed a panel at the 2023 Washington Economic Development Association (WEDA) Conference, exploring strategies for economic resiliency in a post-COVID world.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the insights shared by our panel at this year’s WEDA Conference.

Meet the Panel


  • Raven McShane, Senior Director of Growth at FORWARD


  • Don Goldberg, Director of Economic Development, Port of Bellingham/Whatcom County
  • Kelsey Martin, Director of Client Services at FORWARD
  • Aubrey Relf, Director of Research + Impact at FORWARD

Transitioning From Emergency Funding to New Opportunities: Strategies for Economic Vitality

In the wake of COVID-19, the emergency funding that many organizations counted on during the roughest parts of the pandemic is winding down. This transition from these emergency funds to securing new funding opportunities is a major concern for many economic development leaders and non-profit organizations. Don Goldberg shared some valuable insights on the matter based on his experience working in Whatcom County.

Team Management During the Pandemic

A major point that Don stressed was the significance of internal continuity in economic development teams. For instance, instead of expanding during the rough economic conditions of the pandemic, Don and his team decided to focus their efforts on team cohesion, ensuring that the team could be a more cohesive unit and respond to complex and changing situations with efficiency.

"I encouraged both myself and my staff to increase our efforts, invest more time, adopt a more strategic approach, and refrain from hiring additional personnel who we might have to let go due to inconsistent funding." ~ Don Goldberg, Director of Economic Development, Port of Bellingham/Whatcom County

Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy

The approach that Whatcom County ultimately took emphasized a long-term economic development strategy that was more comprehensive in its funding approach, relying less on grants and pandemic-related funding. In doing so, Whatcom County could ensure that long-term partnerships were built, including collaborative efforts with educational institutions within the community and collaborations with nearby counties. This strategy created a smoother transition that proactively provided reliable funding, especially as emergency funding began to ebb away.

Power of Partnerships: Economic Developers, Local Governments, and Organizations Collaborating for Impact

Successful economic development has always required robust partnerships, which became all too clear during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our panelists discussed effective collaboration among economic developers, local governments, and community organizations in detail.

Don's Safer Stronger Together Program

Don highlighted the success of the “Safer Stronger Together” program, an effort to connect various stakeholders and unite under the common causes of both economic development and public health. During monthly meetings, regional mayors could discuss best practices regarding public health, launch collaborative efforts with other communities, and foster an overall sense of unity between governments throughout the county.

"Society was pitting the economy against the health of our society, forcing us to weigh the economy against the well-being of our community. It seemed as though we had to decide between letting the economy falter while addressing the health of our society or prioritizing the economy at the expense of our society's well-being. Many communities opted for one path or the other. However, from the outset, both the health department and my department chose not to allow that to happen.” ~ Don Goldberg, Director of Economic Development, Port of Bellingham/Whatcom County

Kelsey's Collaborative Approach

Kelsey Martin focused on the relationship between program administrators and community-based organizations, emphasizing effective collaboration between the two. Responding to the late 2021 flooding, FORWARD joined forces with the Washington State Department of Commerce to allocate and disburse $7,388,125 in disaster relief to more than 110 eligible businesses impacted by the flooding between October 2021 and April 2022. When these two parties collaborate effectively, it has the two-fold effect of protecting against fraud and creating a greater overall impact on the community. 

"We wanted to avoid developing a program in a silo that wouldn't benefit the businesses most affected. We understood that local community-based organizations had firsthand knowledge of the businesses facing the greatest challenges because they were deeply connected to the community. So, establishing a collaborative partnership among the grant funder, grant administrator, and the local advocates on the ground, while avoiding siloed approaches, was truly impactful." ~ Kelsey Martin, Director of Client Services at FORWARD

Aubrey's Cross-Sector Approach

Aubrey Relf laid out a cross-sector approach to economic development that encourages creativity. He shared insights on his unique approach to the creative process, which emphasizes public participation. Aubrey stressed the importance of ensuring that the voices of the community are truly heard, strengthening the creative process at all levels.

"It's about understanding each census track within your jurisdiction, comprehending the needs, and then crafting a plan based on those solutions. Following that, it's essential to bring together the people and resources required to ensure that the intended outcomes materialize." ~ Aubrey Relf, Director of Research + Impact at FORWARD

Enhancin Economic Resilience and Preventing Future Crises

If the pandemic taught economic developers anything, it was the importance of economic resilience. Here’s some of what Don had to say on the matter.

Collaboration and Preparedness

In particular, Don emphasized the growing need for local governments to collaborate with their regional partners, ensuring that proactive planning, preparedness, and programmatic responses are established well before a crisis appears, as waiting for a problem to occur before acting is not a sustainable practice.

Learning From Past Successes

Don also highlighted that many of the successes seen during the pandemic were important lessons that economic developers can learn from to conquer future challenges. Don pointed in particular to the importance of not reinventing the wheel. By seeing the strategies that worked this time around, we can develop more resilient responses for future crises.

"To emphasize, there are instances where you need to adapt the model swiftly to achieve faster results on the ground. Sometimes, we must move away from the depth of planning we'd prefer in order to achieve better outcomes." ~ Don Goldberg, Director of Economic Development, Port of Bellingham/Whatcom County

Policy Changes and Advocacy Initiatives for Sustainable Economic Growth

Governments can play a crucial role in how economic development efforts play out. Below are some of Aubrey’s recommendations regarding changing policies and running advocacy initiatives.

Streamlining Permitting Processes

To be effective, green infrastructure shouldn’t be hindered by administrative red tape. Aubrey suggests streamlining the permitting process of renewable energy projects and high-efficiency equipment to encourage more sustainable infrastructure.

Equity and Accessibility

Aubrey highlighted the Justice40 Initiative, a federal environmental justice initiative that seeks to clean up pollution throughout the country, especially in underserved and under-represented communities with more than their share of pollution. This initiative can narrow the economic disparities in underserved communities and build a more sustainable future by making sustainable energy, transportation, and housing more affordable.

Broadband Access

Aubrey also pointed out the vitality of broadband internet access and just how effective it can be in increasing the accessibility and technological toolkit of both a community and its economy, increasing economic resilience and innovation.

Communicating Impact: Attracting Funding Partners for Economic Development Projects

Aubrey illustrated the importance of effective communication strategies when securing funding for projects in economic development.

Tailoring Projects to Community Needs

Every community has its own needs, so it’s crucial to tailor economic development projects to those needs in particular. Doing this will not only address your community’s needs more directly, but it will also help to attract funding partners who are the best fit for your goals.

Setting Measurable Goals

When the goals you establish for your community are measurable, you and your potential partners will have a better idea of the potential impact and return on investment that each project is likely to have, thereby making those projects more attractive to prospective partners.

"So, it's crucial to adopt a target-specific approach. Once you've defined your goals for addressing those issues, your strategies should be designed to create measurable outcomes. To start, it's essential to establish a baseline. Ask yourself, 'Where do we stand today, especially within this specific census tract? Where do we aim to be in ten years, five years, or even three years from now?” ~ Aubrey Relf, Director of Research + Impact at FORWARD

Assembling the Right Team

When building a team to implement a project, it’s essential to choose players who are capable of the tasks required of them and with skill sets diverse enough to tackle challenges with efficiency and versatility.

Seizing Emerging Funding Opportunities: Positioning Economic Developers for Success

Aubrey shared his expertise in government policy and funding and provided valuable insights into emerging opportunities for funding.

Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) focuses on green energy adoption through job training, workforce development, tax credits and more. Aubrey suggests that developing regional collaboration with government and local agencies and aligning purposes, is an effective way to secure Inflation Reduction Act grant opportunities. 

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

Aubrey recommends that economic developers stay up-to-date and well-informed on Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding allocations in their area, as this allows developers to keep their finger on the pulse of possible opportunities.

Grant Opportunities

Aubrey also advised attendees to explore resources like Grants.gov, which can give economic developers up-to-date and actionable information regarding competitive grant opportunities, application processes and their eligibility to access the grants, such as the EPA’s Solar for All grant and the EDA’s Recompete Pilot Program.

Navigating Crisis Response, Fostering Collaboration, and Embracing Regional Solutions

Our distinguished panelists shared valuable insights on how organizations and communities can navigate times of crisis. Don, Kelsey, and Aubrey brought diverse perspectives on adapting, collaborating, and utilizing regional approaches to effectively overcome challenges. 

Swift Adaptation in Crisis

Don underscored the importance of adapting rapidly during crises. While planning remains crucial, he noted that there’s often an excessive reliance on traditional planning processes when immediate action is necessary. Drawing from examples like housing, he stressed the need to adjust models swiftly to achieve tangible results. Don emphasized the value of moving away from extensive planning and focusing on more effective outcomes.

The Power of Collaboration and Resilience

Kelsey emphasized the significance of collaboration and resilience. She highlighted that every organization possesses unique strengths and contributions. Instead of viewing them solely as program administrators, Kelsey suggested recognizing their distinct skills and tools. By fostering a collaborative model where each government, community-based organizations, and private entities partner to amplify existing work, she advocated for an effective approach to address future crises and deliver more resources to affected communities.

"The idea of a collaborative model and resilience is crucial. It's important to recognize that every organization has unique contributions to offer. An organization might excel in on-the-ground skills and tools, while another specializes in technology." ~ Kelsey Martin, Director of Client Services at FORWARD

Embracing Regional Solutions

Aubrey advocated for regional approaches in addressing complex issues. He regarded regional cooperation as a key solution to effectively tackle regional challenges. Aubrey encouraged organizations to align their missions and visions with initiatives at the county, state, and local levels to secure new grant opportunities. He stressed the importance of including a wide range of participants, including marginalized groups and trusted messengers, in these regional efforts.


The 2023 WEDA Conference provided a wealth of information and insights into navigating the economic landscape post-COVID. Strong partnerships, policy changes, and funding opportunities will all be central strategies to create sustainable economic growth in each community.

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