Northern Exposure

Blaine’s housing boom has business leaders happy

by Dave Gallagher
    Colin Gelker enjoys the look of surprise on peoples’ faces when they walk into Worldly Treasures Furniture, a store he manages in Blaine.

Blaine’s waterfront and quality of life are proving to be be big lures to developers, who now have more than 1,500 new homes up for permitting in three large new subdivisions.

    “We’re a unique furniture store because we offer products you don’t normally see in the Pacific Northwest. So when people walk in for the first time, I think they are a little shocked to discover a store like this in a small town like Blaine,” Gelker said.
    The residents of Blaine must be feeling that they are being discovered as well. In recent months, three different developers have presented plans to build a total of nearly 1,500 new homes in the area. There are also plans for condominium units and mixed-use buildings in the downtown and 80 single-family homes near Bell Road in Blaine. There are also proposals for condo and home projects in the Semiahmoo area.
    That’s quite a bit of potential residential construction for a community that only has around 4,000 people, and city officials say plans are in place to accommodate this potential growth.
    “There has been more interest in Blaine in recent years, and I think there is a general sense from residents that some growth would be good,” said Gary Tomsic, Blaine’s city manager. “There is a desire by many to have Blaine reach a population level that would attract some services that are needed in this community, including more business. I don’t think residents want Blaine to grow into a big community, but a small community with a high quality of life. We’re not looking to grow any more than we can handle.”
    Gelker is one of those people who think Blaine could use a little growth to hit that critical mass where other businesses will open downtown. Today, there are not enough businesses to keep Blaine residents in town. He said many travel to Canada or Bellingham to do their shopping.
    “There will be a lot of business opportunities in Blaine if these residential projects move forward,” Gelker said. “This area could use a few more restaurants, as well as something like a movie theater to give people something to do. Blaine has a very bright future, not only because of the beauty of the area and the potential for growth, but also because of the city’s plans to make this a very unique community.”
    Those plans include the construction of a boardwalk along the downtown waterfront; a pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks, linking the marina with downtown; and a lighthouse on the Semiahmoo side of Blaine.
    Other business owners are already seeing a difference in activity. Greg Goff, whose family has owned Goff’s department store in downtown Blaine for 90 years, said there isn’t a day that goes by when someone walks in and introduces themselves, saying they have just moved to Blaine.
    “They are from all over the country, but they all say how happy they are to be here and grateful there are still unique small towns to move to,” Goff said.
    Jano Argue, who moved to Blaine a little over a year ago and works at Worldly Treasures Furniture, said she came to Blaine for reasons she thinks many other people will in the coming years.
    “You have something quite beautiful here with the downtown overlooking the marina and Canada,” Argue said. “The scenery is beautiful and the town has a lot of potential.”
    All of this potential activity is giving the community a chance to wake up from an economic slumber. Blaine saw plenty of activity in the early 1990s, when the Canadian dollar was strong and British Columbians were hopping across the border to gamble, eat at restaurants or buy essential products that were cheaper in the United States at the time, such as gas, milk, butter and eggs.
    However, when the Canadian dollar plummeted from 85 cents to around 63 cents in the late 1990s, gas stations, card houses and restaurants began closing, making Blaine’s downtown a virtual ghost town.
    “Blaine really suffered from the departure of Canadian investment,” said Brad O’Neill, a resident of Blaine who is on the town’s planning commission. “But during that period (in the mid- to late-1990s) it gave the community a chance to plan and create an identity. If we hadn’t done some planning, we would have become Anywhere, USA. Instead we have guidelines in place that the community participated in which will allow us to have some unique features that will set us apart from other communities.”
Tomsic said he’s hopeful that within 10 years, Blaine will be one of those places that Whatcom County residents will show off to out-of-town family and friends who come to visit.
    “When I want to show friends this part of the Pacific Northwest, I take them to places such as Fairhaven, Bellingham or Vancouver,” Tomsic said. “Blaine has some exciting projects planned, and I want this city to be one of those places Whatcom County residents take their friends to visit.”

Bring on the housing boom
    Of the three big residential projects, developer Doug Connelly’s East Maple Ridge is the furthest along in the planning process, having already officially submitted plans to the city. Connelly is proposing to build 353 homes on 88 acres on the east side of Blaine, on H Street Road. Along with the residential housing, there would be about 24 acres of open space for ponds, wetlands, trails and parks.
Connelly’s potential development is just west of Ken Hertz’s proposed project. Hertz plans to build 650 homes on 450 acres. He will leave about 200 acres of open space for community parks and a trail system.
    On the other side of Blaine, near Semiahmoo Parkway and Birch Point Drive, local developers Jim Kaemingk and Fred Bovenkamp are planning a 450-unit partially gated community, to be called Horizons.
    Tomsic thinks if all three developers move forward with their projects, construction for each of them would begin within the next five years. However, he suspects the build-out of these projects will take much longer.
    “I think the build-out of these projects will be similar to what we saw with Semiahmoo – it was a steady growth that has taken almost 20 years and it still hasn’t been completed,” Tomsic said. “People shouldn’t expect to suddenly see a flood of new homes in Blaine. The demand just isn’t here for an explosion of growth.”
    Tomsic said there are several reasons for the sudden interest in Blaine by developers, including the increase in government employees at the border crossings and the steady increase of people moving to Whatcom County.
    “People are discovering the beauty of this area and it is prompting more people to move here,” Tomsic said. “Bellingham has been seeing this for years, but now it is difficult to find a single-family home there. The idea of urban villages is not popular with everyone, so people looking for single-family homes are looking at other Whatcom County communities, like Blaine.”

Bracing for growth
    When Blaine was suffering through tough economic times in the late 1990s, the community spent quite a bit of time in workshops and city meetings discussing the identity of the community.
    “Many of the people who moved to Blaine came from cities that had quality-of-life issues,” O’Neill said. “The general discussion became ‘why go down the same road of other cities where sprawl and traffic were big problems?’ Let’s have Blaine be something different.”
    With that in mind, Blaine officials set about creating regulations that would encourage retail and economic development in the downtown core and discourage retail big-box development on the outskirts of town.
    “It will be interesting to see if it’ll work,” O’Neill said. “We have guidelines in place, but we haven’t had a big-box store come in and make an offer. Until we’ve been challenged, it’s hard to determine the depth of this community’s convictions.”
    The community also adopted design guidelines in 1998 for the downtown core, creating a turn-of-the-century theme that is giving Blaine a unified, unique look, much like communities such as Lynden, La Conner and Leavenworth.
    “It is a theme the community continues to tinker with as we grow, but at least we have a plan on what we want Blaine to look like,” O’Neill said.
    The design guidelines do make it more challenging for developers looking to invest in downtown, but Goff said it’s worth it.
    “Some developers are unhappy about it, but others are thrilled because they know there is a plan in place, and what is expected of them,” Goff said. “Everyone has to follow the same rules and all the downtown businesses will benefit because of the unique look.”
    In order to further encourage businesses to the retail center of Blaine, the city is preparing to build a boardwalk that stretches across the downtown core. There have been some delays in the project, but Tomsic said he expects construction to begin later this year, possibly by this summer. Once construction begins, it will take about six months to complete.
    “The boardwalk is already an attraction,” Goff said. “We went several years without any downtown properties being sold. Now there is a lot more activity with sales and developers proposing mixed-use buildings all along downtown. It’s great to see.”
    The city also began preparing for growth in the community in the late 1990s when there was a discussion about a new wastewater treatment facility. Construction of the $26 million project is expected to be completed within the next four years.
    “The new wastewater facility is a crucial component for growth in Blaine. Our current facility only has room for another 500 connections before it has reached capacity. We hope to get the new facility online before we have to institute a moratorium on building,” Tomsic said.
    While many in Blaine appear hopeful growth will improve the quality of life in the area, there are some growth issues that remain controversial. Some residents are upset that Trillium is proposing to build condominiums on Semiahmoo Spit. The Seagrass Cottages have been controversial because the project is proposed to be built on undeveloped property the community treasures. However, the proposal does fit within the master plan for the area, which was put together more than 20 years ago.
    “There have been concerns expressed from Blaine citizens about growth of some undeveloped properties, such as the Semiahmoo Spit area,” Tomsic said. “I don’t get that sense when it comes to other project proposals, such as the ones in East Blaine. People just want to make sure those projects are done in such a way that it doesn’t hurt the infrastructure of the community.”
    O’Neill said, as a citizen, he feels comfortable about the direction Blaine is heading. He has lived in areas where the signs of growth were coming, but nothing was done.
    “Blaine is in a similar situation as other communities to south of us were in a few years ago,” O’Neill said. “For example, Fife was a very small community in-between Seattle and Tacoma. As those areas grew, more people moved to Fife and I don’t think they had the opportunity to plan for growth. Blaine is between two growing cities (Bellingham and White Rock) but there is a plan for growth,” he said.
    “When I look at the rules in place, and the features that are coming to Blaine such as the boardwalk and lighthouse, I’m confident that even as we grow, Blaine will remain a unique and beautiful place to live.” 

Related Stories