First Federal chief says economic conditions rebounding — but could be better

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Economic conditions in Clallam County are worse than you might think, and the key to a true rebound from the recession will be job creation, First Federal President and CEO Larry Hueth told Port Angeles business leaders Monday.

“The economy is not doing as well as it feels,” Hueth said at the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

“It is certainly better than it was in 2009, but it is not good. And we need to do something here in our own community to improve the opportunities as we move forward.”

In a frank presentation, Hueth said Clallam County has jobs that are not being filled.

“What I'm hearing anecdotally is we're having difficulties attracting qualified individuals,” he said.

“We're having difficulty in keeping them here.

“What we need are private investors to begin to invest in our community, and that's one of the areas where First Federal can help to participate and facilitate that growth.”

Hueth described a “weakness” in unemployment statistics that place Clallam County's jobless rate at 9.0 percent.

“What is really happening is people are dropping out of the workforce,” he said.

“People are not looking for work. They have alternate means to make the living that they want to make. Some of those are government aid programs. Some of those are people who don't have the skills.”

The national labor participation rate is at its lowest level since 1978, Hueth said.

“Had we not had this drop in participation, the true unemployment rate today [nationally] would be 11.5 percent,” he said.

Clallam County had 28,000 working residents in March 2008 compared to about 25,000 now, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the local downward trend continues.

“The state of Washington has stabilized, but our county has not,” Hueth said.

“We're continuing to see people drop out of the workforce in our community,” he added.

“The result is we've had increased delinquencies in loans. We've had foreclosures. We've had challenges with the social services here.”

Hueth was named First Federal's president-CEO by the bank's board of directors in April after having held that position on an interim basis since December 2012.

He replaced former president-CEO Levon Mathews, who abruptly resigned last December.

Hueth, 50, had served as the bank's chief financial officer/chief operating officer/chief risk operating officer prior to being appointed as interim president-CEO.

He suggested a meeting of local leaders to choose an industry that would become “our niche.”

“Some of us think it should be natural resources,” he said.

“Some of us think it should be hospitality. We should go into a room together and haggle over what the decision is going to be, and when we come out we need to be unified.”

First Federal opened in Port Angeles in 1923.

It now has branches in Port Angeles, Sequim, Forks and Port Townsend, and lending centers in Poulsbo and Bellingham, and more than 170 employees.

Hueth opened his presentation by asking the audience members to raise their hands if they felt the economy has improved in the last two years.

Nearly everyone in the upstairs meeting room of the Port Angeles Red Lion Hotel raised a hand.

“There is a very positive outlook,” Hueth said.

“Our sentiment drives our buying activity, which drives our economy.”

But while much of the state is seeing job growth in all sectors, Clallam County is seeing growth in just leisure and hospitality, manufacturing and natural resources.

“We are losing jobs in education and health services,” Hueth said.

“We have people leaving the community.

“It's not the bright picture that maybe this started out to be when people felt better about the economy. We are still struggling.”

Hueth described economic “success stories” in La Conner and Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, and closed his remarks with optimism about Port Angeles.

“I am extremely bullish on the opportunity we have,” he said.

“We have a deep water port. We have an airport. We are across the Strait [of Juan de Fuca] from Victoria.

“There are a lot of opportunities we have. We need to focus and work together, support each other and develop this economy in our neighborhood.”



Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 17. 2013 7:54AM
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