Fairhaven’s gentrification: A good thing?

Yes, say the majority of the area’s businesses. While some fondly remember its funky, run-down past, few would trade that past for today’s increasingly well-off local clientele.

Jeff Wicklund, owner of Purple Smile Wines in the new Fairhaven Gardens building on Finnegan Street, said Fairhaven’s movement toward upscale shops and clients is a natural progression, given the area’s amenities, charm, and new more upwardly mobile residential base.

   This isn’t your father’s Fairhaven.
   With several new, large mixed-use buildings completed in the last year and more on the way, hundreds of new residents living in pricey condos in the area’s core, and new businesses blossoming every month, Fairhaven’s reputation as a funky hamlet is in a state of flux.
   Gone, say longtime Fairhaven business owners, are the days of hippies playing hackysack on the sidewalks, boarded-up storefronts and empty streets.
   Today, as is evident by the first wave of businesses opening in the new buildings and elsewhere, Fairhaven has an upscale flavor to it, offering posh women’s clothing, choice wines, artisan breads, gelato, sushi and Spanish cuisine, among other trendy goods and dishes.
   “There’s definitely been a change in Fairhaven and it will probably never be the same as it was,” said David Moody, a real estate agent at Fairhaven Realty for more than 20 years.
   The swing toward swank, however, say many Fairhaven business officials, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nor is it something that has happened in the blink of an eye.
   Phyllis McKee, president of the Fairhaven Association, said the types of new businesses are likely in response to the area’s changing demographics.
   “It’s their interpretations of where they see Fairhaven going in the future and trying to meet the needs of that changing market,” she said. “I think what’s coming in is wonderful. They have nice things to offer the neighborhood and they’re still privately owned, by people who are very hands-on with their businesses.”
   If new businesses are aiming to cater to more affluent customers, they’ll likely hit their desired targets.
   In the last eight months alone, said Moody, at least 160 condo units have sold in the area, with most ranging from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
   “’Gentrification’ is the perfect word to describe what’s happening here,” he said. “The upper middle class and above are the people who are moving to Fairhaven.”
   Also, said Moody, Fairhaven businesses, being situated between the Edgemoor, South Hill and Chuckanut Drive neighborhoods, are exposed to residents who are in some of the highest income brackets in Whatcom County.
   Jeff Wicklund, owner of Purple Smile Wines, in the new Fairhaven Gardens building on Finnegan Street, said he was well aware of the changing dynamics of the area when he opened his store this winter.
   “It’s a pattern. If you look at places in desirable locations, areas like this will evolve in that upscale direction,” he said.
   While he aims to cater to people of all incomes, he does hope to meet one of the demands for the area’s newcomers.
   “When there’s a market, you fill the need,” he said.
   Carol Beecher, who opened Vie, a chic women’s clothing boutique in November, in the new 12th Street Village building, said recently that she also wanted to provide products that, in part, catered to the area’s newcomers.
   “If you start looking around, there’s a lot of people with money coming into this town and we have to give them what they want so they’ll stay (to shop),” she told The Bellingham Business Journal in December. “We need to look at who’s coming in. If they’re going to shop in Bellingham, we need to give them nice restaurants and shops, or else they’re going to go to White Rock or Vancouver or Seattle.”
   While some of Fairhaven’s new businesses may bring in more clientele clad in ties rather than tie-dye, most longtime area merchants are pleased to see the area evolve.
   “I think the funkiness (of Fairhaven) came from all its emptiness,” said John Hauter, who opened Fairhaven Bike & Mountain Sports in 1971. “But, if you’re going to be in business, you have to have people spending money. The reality with going upscale is that it seems to work.”
   David Lucas, owner of Gallery West, who has operated in Fairhaven for 35 years, agrees.
   “Some people want to call this “Yuppification,” or “Going upscale,” but all it means to me is quality, and I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “Who wants to go to a place that has low quality? People want to go to places that have nice things and good food. We all aspire to move forward, and not go backward.”
   Hauter and Lucas said a core group of the district’s longtime business owners, along with developer Tim Imus, who purchased many of Fairhaven’s old brick buildings decades ago, always had faith in the area.

A specialty wine shop like Jeff Wicklund’s Purple Smile Wines would have had a tougher time establishing itself in the Fairhaven of just a few years ago. An increasingly affluent base of nearby residents has allowed a huge shift in that regard, and brought in more upscale shops.

   There were times, however, when things looked pretty bleak.
   “When we opened, it was basically a ghost town,” Hauter said. “There were a lot of empty buildings and weeds in the sidewalks. We have pictures of Harris Avenue that are completely devoid of any cars.”
   The way the area has developed, said Hauter, is actually the way many people in Fairhaven thought it would.
   “They’re doing now what a lot of people were saying they should do back in the old days — having people live in Fairhaven, and having mixed-use buildings with lots of restaurants and entertainment areas,” Hauter said.
   Change, said Lucas, was inevitable, but he, too, believes Fairhaven’s facelift has been positive.
   “Think about what it could’ve become,” he said. “It could’ve been plastic, poorly designed structures that didn’t integrate with the area or lend to the historical feeling that we have. To me, what I like about Fairhaven now is that it’s sort of gelled and has continuity to it. It still has a feeling and a flavor.”
   Wendy DeFreest, co-owner of Avenue Bread & Deli, which opened a Fairhaven location in October in the new Fairhaven Gardens building, said new business owners, like veteran shopkeepers, have high standards for the area. Also, she said, they recognize the area’s history as a close-knit business community, with local, hands-on owners.
   “I think what people want in Fairhaven are local merchants,” she said. “The buy-local campaign is very strong in Bellingham and part of Fairhaven’s charm is that it’s all locals.”
   Though he’s a newcomer, Wicklund, owner of Purple Smile Wines, said maintaining Fairhaven’s strong ties to its past and its cooperative spirit among merchants are important to him, and should be recognized by other entrepreneurs coming to the area in the future.
   “Fairhaven is clinging to its Bohemian chicness,” he said. “My gut tells me that (future businesses) will have character, and be independently owned and operated by people who are connected to the community.”
   Moody, of Fairhaven Realty, said there’s still about 10,000 square feet of retail and office space available in Fairhaven’s new buildings.
   While leasing expenses are considerably higher than in other parts of town and older buildings, he expects all the spaces to be filled within the next eight months.
   “Turning Fairhaven into an upscale area has been a slow process,” he said, “but now we’re galloping toward the finish line.”



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