Fact or Fiction: Bellingham is anti-business

Business is booming, the city is growing — but the perception remains

By J.J. Jensen
    When Walton Beverage, a fixture in Bellingham for decades, left for Ferndale last year after efforts to secure a new site in the city failed, company President John Walton noticed something about some city officials.
    “We did business for over 60 years in the city of Bellingham but I can’t remember one ‘thank you’ for the tax base that we paid over all those years,” he said. “It is true that the mentality of the city officials is not one of appreciation, unfortunately.”
    While many business owners and developers have few complaints with operating here and working with staff at City Hall, in recent months others have aired grievances about the support (or lack thereof) they believe they get from the city and the challenges of doing business in Bellingham.
Many, however, on both sides of the argument believe business and government could do more to understand each other’s needs.
    “I think there is absolutely, without question, a perception among the general business community that the City of Bellingham is anti-business,” said Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry president and CEO Ken Oplinger.
    That belief, he said, may have become more prevalent lately because:
    — Many people were frustrated in past years dealing with the city’s old permitting process, which Oplinger labeled as “capricious.”
    — Some business owners believe there doesn’t seem to be an interest in having the chamber participate in the decision-making process at City Hall.

John Walton, who recently moved his business, Walton Beverage, out of Bellingham to Ferndale, said the city’s anti-business mentality is hurting its economy.

    — The public misunderstanding between Aluminum Chambered Boats CEO Larry Wieber and Mayor Mark Asmundson, over Wieber’s belief that Asmundson showed more interest in ACB’s tax revenue than his personal happiness for the company’s success.
    “I know there’s not any sort of concerted effort to be anti-business in the city but I just think that there is a happy medium between having the business community have a say in what goes on and ensuring that the business community does not control the process,” Oplinger said. “Unfortunately, we are way, way too far to one side.”
    In addition to feeling underappreciated by elected officials, some business owners, such as Walton and Wieber, also point to the number of taxes in Bellingham – property, sales, utilities, stormwater, business and occupations, payroll, and other small, miscellaneous taxes – as challenges to doing business.
    “Taxes are a huge burden and city officials in Bellingham do not understand that burden on business,” said Walton, who’s received a bit of a tax break in Ferndale, where there’s no B&O tax. “I’m afraid they feel Bellingham has been good to business and that business makes a lot of money in Bellingham, period. Their thinking stops there and, consequently, they’ve gotten a bad reputation recently.”
    Whether there’s an anti-business climate in Bellingham or not, city officials and others should consider what a lack of manufacturing and industrial jobs does to a community, said Shawn Dooley, vice president for sales and marketing at Absorption Corp., one of several large businesses that have moved corporate headquarters out of the city in recent years.
    “If a community at large doesn’t wish to have manufacturing as part of its employment base it needs to understand it does not have as broad or as deep a payroll as a result,” he said.
    “It’s not necessarily a negative if a community decides it wants to be service-oriented or a senior community or retirement destination, but the residents have to understand what that means. In terms of infrastructure and stability, having people who make something for a living is important because they make good wages and those dollars are reinvested in the community more than in a retailing community.”
    Fairhaven developer Ken Imus, a longtime critic of City Hall, points to the permitting center as a major challenge to doing business in Bellingham. In December, he cancelled three Fairhaven projects, citing the nitpicking his projects received from city staff.
    “It takes me months and months and months to get a permit,” he said.
    Others, however, say Bellingham’s not a bad place at all to do business.
    Developer Andre Molnar, who’s been involved in Bellingham projects for nearly 10 years, said some negative perceptions about the city among developers may stem from the past, before the new, “one-stop” Building Permit Center was implemented last year.
    “My impression was (the permitting process) was slower years ago but I think they’ve reacted. It’s just that bureaucrats are bureaucrats – but they’re not obstructionists,” he said. “I find you can work with city staff and they are reasonable. If they didn’t do this new permit center, I would have had other comments but it’s a signal the staff and officials are trying to do a better job.”
    John Sands, owner of Boss Tweed Restaurant, has been doing business in town for 22 years, and said he has a positive relationship with City Hall and that the area’s surroundings and quality of life overshadow any negatives about operating here.
    Sands acknowledges he has friends who have complaints about their dealings with the city but suggests business owners with grievances should approach the city as a group. About 15 years ago, he said, he and other Old Town business owners came together and worked with the city on cleaning up that area of town.
    “It started with all the business owners in this district going to the city, and they listened,” said Sands. “Nobody likes people in their faces yelling at them.”
    Dan Warner, chairman of Pro-Whatcom, a group concerned with preserving quality of life and promoting sensible growth, said sometimes different sections of the community can misunderstand each other.
    For example, “Pro-Whatcom is not anti-business, we’re pro-prosperity and local business,” Warner said.
    Warner said he doesn’t currently see signs that would indicate Bellingham is an anti-business community.
    “It seems to me the most recent statistics indicate that business is booming in Whatcom County,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that people could say there’s any kind of anti-business sentiment, given the enormous amount of business in this community.”
    Indeed, city B&O taxes collected last year rose for the fourth-consecutive year, while valuations for building permits were at an all-time high in 2003, at $217.9 million.
    Asmundson admits there are steps the city can take to bridge gaps with the business community but doesn’t believe there’s an anti-business climate here.
    “The notion that Bellingham is hostile to business falls in the category of ‘urban legend,'” he said.
    Some of the organizations the city supports with funding to promote business development include the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council, Sustainable Connections, Western Washington University Small Business Development Center, Bellingham/Whatcom County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and festivals such as Ski to Sea.
    “There is no one else who is spending as much to keep a vibrant and diverse local economy,” Asmundson said.
    The City Council also affirmed its support for business development in its list of 2005 goals: “Support development of a more diverse economy; seek ways to increase high-paying jobs in Bellingham.” Still, though, Asmundson said he recognizes challenges facing some businesses here.
    The B&O tax, he said, can be problematic for businesses that are high volume, low margin sellers, but older cities like Bellingham have had that tax for decades and if it went away other taxes would likely have to be increased or services cut.
    Asmundson said the city also saw the flaws in the old permitting process so they implemented the new permit center, and city staff is currently reviewing city codes and processes to make doing business with the city easier.
    Businesses with concerns need to approach city officials too, he said. He also encourages business owners to get involved with city committees, such as the Budget Advisory Committee, and to attend neighborhood meetings to keep the community abreast of issues in the business world.
    “Recognize that in a city the size of Bellingham, individuals can have a huge impact on the direction the city takes,” Asmundson said. “Elected officials are extremely accessible. I’m eager to talk to any business group in town, any time.”
    Rob Pochert, executive director of the Economic Development Council, disagrees with Asmundson about Bellingham’s business climate.
    “I hear from business people all the time and their perception is that Bellingham is not friendly to business,” he said. “There’s also a perception that the business community as a whole is reluctant to get involved in city politics because they are concerned there’s a faction in the local community that doesn’t appreciate local business and what the
ir taxes contribute.”
    Porchert said more business stories by the local media could help the community understand what business means to the community and more personal attention toward businesses from City Hall could heal past differences. Some city officials, business owners and community members say they’d be supportive of an idea posed by City Councilman Gene Knutson: holding a local business forum.
    “I’m just one of seven (councilmembers) but if there’s a way for us to all get together, there’s a way to make it better,” Knutson said. “Hopefully, we can all do that soon because it’s not good to have people looking at Bellingham and having that (anti-business impression).”

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