Ferndale, Skagit County actively promoting themselves as destinations for city’s disaffected businesses
If Bellingham is going to shake its reputation as being anti-business, it needs to be more proactive, said Rob Pochert, former executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council.
And until that happens, said Pochert last month, on one of his final days on the job before exiting the post to take the position of economic development manager in Beaverton, Ore., Bellingham is in jeopardy of not only losing more large employers to other areas of the county and elsewhere, but of also being unable to attract new businesses.
Meanwhile, he said, while Bellingham is currently doing little to create a perception that it’s a business-friendly town, surrounding communities are making extra efforts to let potential new businesses know they’d be more than happy to have them.
“The attitude in places like Skagit County is, ‘We’re here to help you‚ and ‘Your business is important to us,’” Pochert said. “It also happens in Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine and Sumas — but it doesn’t happen in Bellingham, it just doesn’t.”
Bellingham’s perceived attitude toward business has become so low, Pochert said, that of the 25 potential projects the EDC was working on at the time of his departure — which consist of $131 million in building projects and 800 new jobs — none were within the city.
“To my knowledge, companies interested in the area right now are not looking at Bellingham because of the reputation that it’s not business friendly,” he said.
While there are vocal sections of the community who don’t support growth and industrial-type businesses, Pochert believes Bellingham’s anti-business reputation comes in large part from the attitudes of some elected officials.
“I think there’s a general sense among some policymakers that we don’t need business,” he said, “and that what we need are greenbelts and parks.”
In addition, while the city recently launched its “one-stop” permit center, in which several key planning departments are now housed in one location to improve customer service and a timely building-application process, Pochert said stories about businesspeople encountering extremely long waits for permits are rampant.
“People are saying it isn’t worth their time to go through the permit process here and are going elsewhere,” he said.
Pochert said it also doesn’t help Bellingham’s business reputation when longtime businesses uproot for other parts of the county.
Since he was hired by the EDC in 2003, he said, four large employers, Walton Beverage, Bellingham Marine Industries, Absorption Corp. and Hempler’s Meat & Sausage Co. all relocated to the Ferndale area. Meanwhile, Emerald Bay Events has announced its intentions to build an 80,000-square-foot events center in Ferndale and two other large manufacturers are discussing leaving Bellingham, although he declined to name whom.
Perhaps, he said, those businesses may not have left town if they felt they were appreciated or if elected officials were more in tune with their needs.
“One thing I’ve seen in other areas I’ve worked is city policymakers taking the time to visit their major employers in town,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time but it tells that business that somebody cares. All they have to do is walk in, shake hands and say, ‘If you need me, call.’”
When businesses don’t feel appreciated, Pochert said, it’s likely they tell others in their industry.
“For example, if a company is looking to move here, they’ll talk to comparable business about what it’s like do business here,” he said. “If all they hear is negativity, no one will come to town.”
Smaller communities more
aggressive in luring new business
To find examples of places working to be viewed as business friendly,
Pochert said, Bellingham need look no further than Skagit County and the smaller cities in Whatcom.
In Sumas, said Mayor Bob Bromley, when a business is considering moving to town, city officials aim to answer all of the company’s questions as quickly as possible and get all permits processed within six weeks.
At initial meetings with officials from potential new businesses, Bromley said he asks his city administrator and utilities superintendent to attend as well, to provide as much feedback as possible.
When businesses go through the permitting process, he said, he asks city employees to take extra care with their applications.
“In most places, (businesses) will get a form, fill it out and hand it in. And if mistakes are made they have to do it all over again,” he said. “We’ll help them through the whole process. It’s a handholding technique all the way through and if they have any questions they’ll get an answer, because most companies want to come in right away.”
And, said Bromley, he makes his home, business and cell numbers available to all businesses — new and old — in case anyone has a question or concern.
“We’re interested in not only recruiting new businesses, but also retaining the ones that have been here a while,” he said. “Once you get them here, you have to keep them happy and healthy.”’
Ferndale, said Mayor Jerry Landcastle, makes it a priority to work closely with potential and existing businesses and promotes his city’s business-friendly attitude whenever possible.
“It’s not necessarily a new concept for people in public service, but our attitude is, ‘How can we make your project work, if it’s for the betterment of our community?’”
While Landcastle touts what his city can offer to new businesses, and how his staff works to meet their needs, he said he also has to explain to residents why the business can be good for the city.
“On the surface, not everyone is interested in seeing growth, but I think when people are presented with a complete picture they can see the benefits,” he said. “We need a revenue stream in our community in order to pay for the routine service that we provide. We must provide public safety and public health and we need money for both of those things.”
To further promote business, Landcastle said, the city has recently hired a part-time consultant to explore options for downtown redevelopment and economic growth. In May, the consultant will lead symposiums to learn more about what “economic development” means to the city.
Businesses like to feel appreciated
Some local business owners who’ve been recruited to move to communities in the area say the extra attention from city officials makes them feel wanted.
When Cedar Prime, a manufacturer of cedar shakes, moved its operation from British Columbia to Sumas in 2002, site manager Carlos Rodrigues said a major reason was because of the city’s enthusiasm to bring them there.
At an initial meeting with Sumas officials, recalled Rodrigues, the city brought members of the EDC, immigration attorneys, accountants and WorkSource officials to answer questions.
“We had maybe a two-hour discussion and 90 percent of my questions were answered that day,” he said. “They gave the impression that they wanted to work with us and were committed to making sure our permits weren’t delayed. I remember telling my boss, ‘They’re business friendly. No one’s going to let you get away with not following the rules, but they’re going to help you get to your final destination and understand the rules and regulations that are required.’”
Tom Aitchison, president and COO of Bellingham’s Aluminum Chambered Boats, agreed that communities that appear friendly to business leave a lasting impression in the minds of company leaders.
When ACB was considering a new location recently, Aitchison said, he was contacted by officials from the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.
“They were very, very enthusiastic about bringing us down and showing us buildings,” he said. “They did a lot of homework on our needs, about the number of welders and skilled craftsmen in their community, and how Skagit Valley Community College had an aluminum-welding training program. A big part of their selling package is that the Mount Vernon-Burlington political machine is really tuned in to trying to bring new business to the community and that economic growth is embraced there.”
Ultimately, said Aitchison, ACB officials didn’t want to uproot their employees and the Port of Bellingham — not the city — made a positive pitch for the company to stay. However, he’s impressed with Skagit County’s ability to attract new businesses.
“They’re much more aggressive in trying to entice growing businesses to come to their county,” he said. “The Port of Bellingham did a great job working with us but I felt badly for them, because I think they were kind of on their own.”
While the smaller communities in the area appear to pay more attention to business than Bellingham, their city leaders are quick to point out they likely have less on their plates than Bellingham and thus more time to give personalized attention.
Also, they point out that factors, including cheaper land and no B&O taxes, may also be just as attractive as their enthusiasm toward business.
“It’s probably fair to say that a lot of the smaller communities have worked to encourage businesses to come to their communities because, as you go back over the last 10 years, as far as their economies go, they’ve had some financial issues to overcome,” said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Bellingham doesn’t need to be doing more to cater to business, said Oplinger and others.
“As a community, we need to sit down and address the issues of what new businesses coming here mean,” Oplinger said. “I don’t think the topic is at the level of interest that it needs to be.”
Such a conversation, he said, should include members of the chamber, EDC, City Council, planning department, port, Small Business Development Center, local colleges and the community.
City Councilman Gene Knutson believes such a meeting is overdue.
“A few years ago, I proposed a business/economic development forum, with all the placeholders at one table, so we could sit down and discuss our future,” he said. “I think it might be time now to sit down and map a strategy, because right now it seems like everybody is going in different directions.”
Though the EDC is currently pondering its future — and should announce in June whether it will stay in existence — Yvonne Bianchi, a board member of the EDC, believes the organization could do more in the future to get the community thinking about business.
“A lot of people think economic development means big, ugly companies coming in and ruining our beautiful world, when that’s not the case,” she said. “It would be really nice if the community had a better understanding and appreciation for the importance of (business).”