About three months ago the City of Bellingham was “shocked” by some grim economic news from the Census Bureau; wages in the City and in the County, are among the lowest in the State for a major city and, worse, are dropping relative to other areas of the state. Common Threads reported on the phenomena.
“YAWN” was the response from the Bellingham City Council; apparently the huge financial hit their constituents had just taken was simply business as usual to that august group. Spokesman for Bellingham’s modern version of Tammany Hall cranked up the excuse factory, blaming everything on the student population only to be slapped in the face by an economic study from Western demonstrating that Bellingham’s economy is an abject failure nationally when compared to other cities with similar student populations.
That curious creature called a “Bellinghamster,” a close relative of the lemming, was equally unconcerned; thus, justifying the Council’s lack of concern. In the November elections, the architects of the economic disaster were resoundingly reelected at both the city and county level; chief excuse maker Todd Donovan has just resigned his seat on the Council to accept another seat on the Council; the result of some byzantine infighting in what used to be Whatcom County’s Democrat Party.
In point of fact, the moribund Whatcom County economy is moribund because both the City of Bellingham and the County itself want it that way. The biggest factor holding back wages in Whatcom County is the utter disdain both the Bellingham City Council and the Whatcom County Council have for both business in general and, as a result, the needs of businesses, especially those providing higher wage jobs. Regulatory issues are the governor the councils use to control the speed of the economic engine.
Whatcom County’s planning counts on Bellingham to be the economic driver for the County despite the County’s own documentation showing that Bellingham actually has functioned as an effective anchor on the economy for the past several years.
A prime example of a rather deliberate effort by both Bellingham and Whatcom County’s Councils to retard the spark that could ignite the economy is the Bellingham International Airport. According to the Port of Seattle’s periodic studies on the issue, Sea-Tac Airport is the economic driver of the Port’s huge contribution to the King County economy. You can find the actual report at https://www.portseattle.org/Supporting-Our-Community/Economic-Development/Pages/default.aspx
Here are overview charts taken from the study.
The result has been Whatcom County’s best lands for attracting business activity has been, for a very long time, turned into a large parking lot either unused for significant activity or much under-utilized even as the City spent millions of dollars and rushed through special zoning usable only by Costco to allow that firm to move from one site to another within the City; millions spent and millions more promised with almost no economic benefit to the community.
The City has been presented with several proposals for the use of lands near the airport over those years, proposals that would have provided hundreds, or even thousands of jobs in all economic sectors and, proposals dovetailing perfectly into what the City claims are its desires for such proposals. The proposals have been pointedly ignored even as, as you can see from Whatcom County Planning’s own charting, only a handful of jobs were produced in the City between the last two planning periods.
A further indication this is all purposeful?
Bellingham just adopted Comprehensive Plan maps lands around the airport as being available for development but the city’s consideration of lands to be provided with sewer, water, and other infrastructure does not contemplate the necessary infrastructure will be provided for 20 years or more.
The airport lands are just one example among many.
What to do?
Nothing will happen until the two councils become proactive towards business and nothing is likely in the short term, an economy is like a large ship, once up to a certain speed it takes time to slow and reverse course.
Four solutions present themselves:
- Most of Bellingham’s jobs lands are improperly zoned for the kinds of jobs likely to come to Bellingham so a long process is required before anything can happen on those lands. A business looking at relocation usually will not wait and will not invest in a year’s long process. They’ll go elsewhere. That zoning needs adjustment.
- Lands surrounding the Airport must be made available for use. They are Whatcom County’s, and Bellingham’s, most important lands for the future by far in terms of jobs production.
- Countywide, councils and others should begin to focus on “How can we say ‘yes’ to good projects that meet our purported goals,” rather than saying, “We’ll get back to you in a few years.”
- Bellingham should begin to implement one of the goals of its early planning under Growth Management which called for a five-year supply of serviced, ready to go lands to serve, among other things, economic growth in the city. The plan was put forward and adopted then promptly forgotten.
What will actually happen?
Nothing. The City received the news last year that it will have burned through its once formidable reserve fund within five years.
Local leadership have promoted that fire, parks, and other consumers of tax money be separated from the city proper as many new special districts with new taxing authority allow for significant tax increases.
The impact on jobs?