Bellingham's laid-back lifestyle attracts variety of businesses

Bellingham has a lot to offer businesses: proximity to two metropolises and the border, an airport, a major waterway and...

Everyone moves to Bellingham for different reasons, right? Actually, it turns out a lot of people move to this area for a similar reason: They love the lifestyle. And so too do a lot of business owners.

Index Industries, a company that manufactures switches and sensors for industrial equipment, will be moving from Stanwood to Fairhaven in October of 2011. Company President Steven “Andy” Anderson could have moved the 29-employee business anywhere in the region, but chose Bellingham because he missed the town.

“I suppose I fell in love with Bellingham when I went there for college in the ’70s,” Anderson said. “It’s just this wonderful collection of features, benefits and lifestyle.”

For a city of about 80,000 people, Bellingham has a fairly strong arts community, Anderson said, citing the Pickford Film Center and the Mount Baker Theatre. And with various streams and rivers, a bay, mountains and trails, there are bountiful recreational possibilities, he said.

Those possibilities were enough to earn Bellingham the ranking of Sunset Magazine’s best place in the West to play year-round for 2011. The magazine cites 65 miles of multi-use trails, the county’s 143 miles of Puget Sound shoreline and 3,000 miles of rivers and streams.

Something the magazine failed to mention are the mountain biking trails galore, which attracted another company to the area whose employees were traveling to Bellingham once or twice a week to mountain bike.

Transition Bikes relocated from Seattle to Ferndale in 2005 for one specific reason: mountain biking trails.

“Bellingham really is a world class mountain biking destination,” co-owner Kevin Menard said. “It was pretty easy to convince ourselves to go.”

Galbraith has some of the best trails in the state, Menard said.

But, while Menard wanted to move to Whatcom County, he wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been economically and logistically feasible. He needed enough land for the right price. The same holds true for Anderson.

Logistical draws

Both Menard and Anderson said being located in this area makes it easy to recruit employees, who are just as excited as they are about local amenities.

And it’s easy to find the right kind of employees because Western Washington University and the three local colleges are producing a skilled workforce, Anderson said. Those institutions also make it easier to provide employees with ongoing training and allow Index Industries to connect with interns, he said.

Whatcom County also has a broad range of resources for to help educate business owners, Anderson said, including the Center for Economic Vitality and Sustainable Connections.

There is also an airport, which Anderson said is a great benefit and relatively hassle free.

“Flying in and out of Bellingham is a dream compared with driving though Seattle,” he said. “And people are really supportive of my passion of creating a green company.”

The city and Port of Bellingham have been supportive and accessible, he said.

Anderson’s list of praises for Bellingham is not short; it is, however, in line with reasons a lot of other business owners have given for moving here.

“I suppose I fell in love with Bellingham when I went there for college in the 70s. It’s just this wonderful collection of features, benefits and lifestyle.” Steven “Andy” Anderson, Index Industries president

At Northwest Economic Development Council, Kim Loveall Price, interim executive director, and John Michener, programs manager, have heard all of Anderson’s reasons for moving here from a variety of business owners. They have also cited close proximity to two major metropolises — Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. — as big draws.

Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said some businesses enjoy the benefits of being in a more rural area with closeness to economic and transportation hubs in those metropolitan areas.

Another attractor is the salty waterway on the county’s western border. That attracts a lot of marine-related businesses, Oplinger said.

Still, with all those reasons to move here, fewer business owners are.

“There have not been a whole lot of businesses moving in the past couple years,” Johh Michener said. “It has been about maintaining and keeping people around if you can.”

But, he said, interest in this region is beginning to pick back up as we come out of the recession. Northwest Economic Development Council is currently working with six companies that are considering moving to Whatcom County — five of those are Canadian or multinational corporations, Michener said. Most of them are also large manufacturing companies that would employ between 60 and 200 people.

Room to improve

Whatcom County and Bellingham may have a lot to offer businesses, but certain changes could help attract more companies. Being able to offer tax incentives would improve the area’s odds, Michener said.

Michener is in talks with an aerospace company that is considering moving to Whatcom County. The business is interested in tax incentives, which can’t be obtained here. That hasn’t killed the deal, but they’re still not sold, Michener said.

“The cheaper it is to do business, the more businesses you’re going to have,” Michener said.

In general, large companies are interested in tax incentives; they are also interested in water and power infrastructure, Michener said.

In addition to lacking tax breaks, another possible deterrent for businesses considering moving to the area is the cost of living relative to wages. The cost of living in Whatcom County is high compared to the average wage and people might find it difficult to retain lifestyles they have grown accustomed to, Oplinger said. This can be solved by recruiting businesses that provide high-paying jobs, but first we need to be able to attract them, he said.

“To some extent, it’s like the chicken and the egg,” Oplinger said.

Some improvements are already taking place. The and city’s building and planning offices are becoming more “business friendly,” Oplinger said, and that work should continue.

Basically, anything that can be done to lower barriers would help attract businesses to the area, Michener said.

The city’s business and occupation tax may be considered one of those barriers by some businesses, but Anderson said it wasn’t enough to deter him.

“You get what you pay for,” he said.

Obviously not all business owners who consider moving to Whatcom County actually take the plunge. It’s not right for everyone. Still, the positives outweigh most barriers, Loveall Price said, and that’s especially true for business owners who like the lifestyle offered by the City of Subdued Excitement.

“I believe there is always that link back to the lifestyle,” Loveall Price said. “Once people move to Bellingham they don’t ever really want to leave.”

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