Developers finding plenty of new opportunities along city’s waterfront

by Dan Hiestand
    The first time Tim Imus laid eyes on Blaine, he was intrigued — perhaps even smitten. That was in 2004, when he headed to the border town with his father, Ken.
   “I went up with dad to look at property, and I had never been to Blaine,” Tim Imus said. “(Ken) was looking at a piece of property in the core of downtown on the inland side, and we got out of the car on the water side and I went, ‘Wow, look at this. This is gorgeous.'”
   Within a year, Tim and Ken Imus were property owners in the town — and became two of a considerable list of Whatcom County developers who have recently taken an interest in the Blaine area.
   So, why is this sleepy waterfront town in the crosshairs of more and more developers? The city and the developers emerging in the area realize the town is at a crossroads: The future look and feel of the city is up for grabs.

A gut feeling
   When Ken Imus speaks about development, people tend to listen. After all, Imus — probably the most influential developer in the evolution of modern-day Fairhaven — has a proven track record.
   His comfortable and cozy Fairhaven office looks like a developer’s office should: Posters poke out of boxes, and pictures of current and past projects adorn the walls of his second-floor suite. Sitting behind his desk, the soft-spoken Imus said he enjoys working on new projects, and he doesn’t see that passion subsiding anytime soon.
   Recently, the 80-year-old developer said he has turned some of his creative energy to the north, toward Blaine. Within the last two years, he purchased the Worldly Treasures Furniture property, a 27,000-square-foot parcel on Peace Portal Drive in Blaine, as well as a mostly vacant 18,000-square-foot parcel next to the Truffles by the Sea restaurant just down the street.
   While he has no official plans to develop the property yet, he said he has considered the idea of building a hotel on the 18,000-square-foot property in the future.
   “Nothing in this world is for sure,” Ken Imus said. “(The hotel would be) something with some pretty good quality that would help downtown Blaine.”
   The elder Imus, who has been in talks with Blaine city officials, said the city has a lot of potential when it comes to development. He mentioned the impact that developers such as Homestead Northwest Development Co., David Syre and Fred Bovenkamp have had on interest in the area, citing projects at Semiahmoo and Loomis Trail Golf Club as examples.

Fairhaven developer Ken Imus and his son Tim have turned their eyes from Bellingham Bay north to Drayton Harbor, investing in projects within the city of Blaine — with more on the way if their initial forays are successful.

    “We feel Blaine has the potential to be the Santa Barbara of the north,” Ken Imus said. “It’s such a pretty setting, surrounded by good things.”
   Bovenkamp, who has two projects within the Blaine city limits — Gleneagle Villas at Semiahmoo, an 18-unit condominium complex that has been under construction since late 2005, as well as the Greens at Loomis Trail, Phase II, which has 31 single-family lots and has already been built and mostly sold — said the three areas of Blaine that attract the most attention are the downtown sector, Loomis Trail Golf Course and Semiahmoo.
   “It’s pretty clear that people have found Blaine to be an opportunity,” Bovenkamp said.”It’s been dormant for a long time.”
   Bellingham-based developer Ken Hertz also has a project in Blaine — a residential complex with approximately 1,000 units featuring a commercial center and a wetlands area with trails and preserves. Hertz said his project, which will not be completely built out for a projected 10 to 12 years, is developing at the same time the city of Blaine is updating its utility systems. He said he is submitting preliminary plans to the city this fall.
   “We’re going to try and coincide with what the city does and try to bring it online with their services,” he said. The idea of building in the city municipality — and not in the growth management boundaries — also appealed to Hertz.
   “That was the big factor for me. Plus, I like the idea of being on the border. I think the Canadian market has been underestimated. I think in the future, as the dollar begins to balance out, that you’re going to find more Canadian interest on the American side. Right across the border, there are lots going up for sale for a half million to a million dollars on the Canadian side …. Our lots would be way more affordable.”
   The dollar does purchase a bit more land in Blaine — specifically compared to current prices in Bellingham — although prices have risen steadily in both cities and around Whatcom County. In 2003, according to Windermere Real Estate information, the average selling price of a home in Blaine was $191, 693. At that same time, Bellingham homes were selling for an average of $235,825, while homes in Ferndale were selling for $190,345 and Lynden homes were priced at $196,043.
   Between Jan. 1 and June 27, 2006, the average selling price of a home in Blaine has been $313,755, compared to $363,892 in Bellingham, $318,624 in Ferndale and $313,379 in Lynden.
   With land that’s slightly less expensive than Bellingham — combined with factors such as the growth of Vancouver, the upcoming 2010 Olympics and infrastructure improvements such as planned city utility upgrades, the construction of a pedestrian boardwalk downtown, state improvements to Pacific Highway and the new shopping center, Birch Bay Square — Ken Imus said things are looking up along the border.
   “My gut feeling tells me that Blaine is a good (area for development),” Ken Imus said. “It’s been quiet, but it has potential.”
   And the more developers that move into the area, the more that will follow, Hertz said. However, he added, this is not always a good thing from a market standpoint.
   “I believe that in the long run, Blaine’s got a good future,” he said. “But in the short run, I think things are going to get overpriced and it will come to a standstill.”
   Ken Imus shared some of that sentiment.
   “It’s expensive relating to the market,” he said. “It’s a tough one to make the numbers work – in downtown Blaine. I’m not talking about the other projects around it.”

In need of a makeover?
   Dennis Hill, 47, said he knows Blaine is staring the future in the face. He also knows what its past looks like.
   The Hill family roots run deep in Blaine. Hill went through the Blaine school system through junior high, and his family has owned the Pastime Tavern on Peace Portal Way for the past 40 years. His brother owns the Chevron gas station on Peace Portal Way, and his sister now owns the tavern.
   Hill, a Realtor with Windermere Real Estate, said he’s noticed a lot of interest in the Blaine area in the last few years from developers. This interest came after a long period of quiet, he said — quiet that started when Blaine lost its pull-tab gambling to tribal casinos.
   “All of the little old ladies that came down to play pull tabs all of a sudden weren’t coming to Blaine,” he said. And as a border town, it relied heavily on the Canadian dollar. “I referred to (Blaine) for thirty years as a 7-11 town. Cheap gas. Cheap milk.”
   Now, the city has to reinvent itself — especially its downtown — if it is to develop successfully, Hill said.
   “Blaine has to sell itself downtown, and get rid of the stigma that it is a border town, a gas-station town,” said Hill, who has been working the past several months to attract developer attention downtown. “I think a developer has to be able to ensure that he’s going to be able to put enough units in to take a chance on a town.”
   That means potentially easing building-height restrictions, which may not sit well with some, he said. Currently, developers who wish to build on the water side of Peace Portal Way can go up three stories, while buildings on the opposite side can go up four stories. However, there is a provision for conditional use to allow buildings to go higher on a case-by-case basis, said Blaine City Manager Gary Tomsic.
   “(The city will determine) if a plan makes sense,” he said. To make sense, it needs to fit in with the city’s vision for future development, Tomsic said — which means finding the balance between .
   “Over the next 15 or 20 years, the city’s population will likely double,” said Tomsic. “Preserving a small-town feel is something that’s important to our citizens. How you interpret that is a little more difficult.”
   He said having a strong city center is important — as well as a mixed-use downtown area — complete with residential housing and a strong business core.
   “It ought to be a place where people live but also a thriving business community,” he said. To preserve the small-town feel, it shouldn’t be so developed that community members feel disconnected from each other, he said. It’s also important that development integrates environmental pluses such as views of Drayton Harbor into design plans.
   “There’s a lot going on around Blaine, but very little downtown,” Hill said. “If a building is four stories or six stories and you’re behind those buildings, you can’t see the water anyway. It’s a flat topography all the way to H Street. It’s not like you’re blocking people’s view behind you.”
   Hill said there are two schools of thought on development: citizens who prefer little or no change, and those who want retail and new buildings to take hold downtown. He said he understands both points of view.
   “Blaine is a community that would like to maintain a small-town feel, but at the same time take full advantage of their water views,” he said. Ken Imus echoed the statement.
   “(The city has) a marvelous attitude,” he said. “They have some problems – often centered around money. But they are extremely pleasant and helpful to work with.”
   However, there have been challenges, said Tim Imus, who is applying to build a 15-unit complex on Peace Portal Drive at the southern end of town called 3 Knots. His project is the northernmost of three planned projects by three Fairhaven developers. Next to his project is an 11-unit condominium complex proposed by developer Phil McNamee, and next to McNamee is a project proposed by Ted Mischaikov consisting of 20 condominiums, 20 zero-lot-line single family homes, and three duplexes called Brickyard Cottages.
   “Early on, I think (the city was) struggling for an identity,” Tim Imus said. “I think there was a little bit of a curve for them to figure that out. But once they did, they’ve always been … fun. Everybody has been extremely helpful.”
   McNamee said the city has been supportive of developers’ projects.
   “As you come down Peace Portal, (our projects are) the first thing you’d see as you come into Blaine,” he said. “What we’ve proposed to them is their vision of what they’d like to see.”
   Ken Imus said controlled change is the best kind when it comes to building on a vision.
   “There’s always mixed emotions, or those who don’t want change,” he said. “But if it is going to change, it would be healthy to see it change to a little more quality than it once was.”
   Hertz agreed.
   “Fairhaven, I think, is a good example of pretty good design,” Hertz said. “There has been this kind of ‘district’ design. Blaine needs to follow that. Otherwise, they’ll end up in the same situation as some communities that simply are anxious to move ahead, and they let anything go up.”
   Hill said the downtown area is ready to boom — as soon as a major development takes hold there. A development will bring retail, and retail will bring more development.
   Alex Wenger, a Geographical Information System Technician with the city of Blaine, said the city has approved 84 residential units for construction since January, although that number will likely increase, he said. Currently, Harborside Place — a four-story, mixed-use building with nine residential units proposed by developer Richard Osburn — is the only development that’s been approved or even proposed in the downtown waterfront area.
   “Everybody is kind of waiting for that one person to start a nice 60 to 80-unit development,” he said. “Then it will take off.”
   For Ken Imus, the development of Blaine has become another opportunity.
   “There’s just a lot of quality people becoming involved in that greater north county area,” Ken Imus said. “And I’m just enjoying being a part of that.”

Blaine airport land usage remains a hot topic

    This past November, Blaine voters approved an advisory measure that asked the City Council to study the feasibility of closing the city’s airport and using the airport property for other uses.
    Recommendations on alternative plans for the airport land — about 40 acres of property east of the truck route and south of H Street — will be made later this summer in front of the Blaine City Council by a consulting firm hired to look into the issue. Included in the firm’s study is an assessment of what kind of benefits the community would experience if a $20 million airport expansion were to press ahead as well.
    In the end, the city will have three choices regarding the site, said Gary Tomsic, Blaine city manager: Expand the airport, keep the land the way it is, or use it for another purpose. The $42,500 study, conducted by MAKERS architecture & urban design — a Seattle consulting firm — is examining all three options, he said.
    At the same time, the federal government will be concluding its $125,000 airport master plan study on the airport expansion, which should be presented to the City Council at the end of July, said Doug Fenton, chair of the Blaine Airport Commission.
    “I think (the airport issue is) important,” Tomsic said. “I think there will be strong points on all sides … (The city) needs to move forward, whatever the decision is.”
    Blaine Realtor Dennis Hill, a proponent of closing the airport and a member of the political group, “Revitalize Blaine Now,” helped put the advisory measure together.
    In a letter written to The Bellingham Business Journal, Hill said he hoped the airport would “be used for something that would benefit more than a few hobby pilots. As a group, we feel strongly that this … city-owned property could be used in many ways that would be more beneficial to our city and we are hopeful that this (MAKERS) study will give our local leaders some great ideas on airport alternatives.”
    Fenton said the expansion, which would primarily be paid for by federal government ($14.5 million) and private funding ($4.3 million), would benefit the area greatly. Original estimates on the expansion were closer to $16.5 million.
    “Viable airports are an economic engine,” Fenton said. “They bring development to a city.” Fenton said the chance for federal funding — which he admitted is not guaranteed — is something the community should not turn its back on.
    “No one can say for sure it will be there,” Fenton said of the aid. “But I’m confident it will be.” The government wouldn’t devote the funds to the study if they were not serious about the expansion, he said. He added that the federal government would immediately provide $450,000 to the airport if the master plan is approved by the city.
    The rest of the funding, “will come in bits and pieces over the next 10-15 years,” Fenton said.
    Hill said he is concerned because the funding is not guaranteed, and even if the money could be guaranteed, the city in a sense could be “stuck,” if the airport expansion doesn’t work out as hoped.
    “Once you take the (federal money), you’re stuck (into the plan),” Hill said. “I’m afraid what we will have is a very nice, $20 million hobby-pilot airport.”
    Since the election, the city formed a committee of local residents that has looked at alternative uses of the airport land. That group has also met with MAKERS to provide feedback based on public and developer input.
    “We’ve also been talking with surrounding property and business owners, with real estate professionals and with airport users and supporters,” said Julie Bassuk, a partner with MAKERS. “We’ve also talked with the Port of Bellingham, as well as the airport commission.”
    However, because the vote was just “advisory,” the ultimate decision on what to do with the land rests in the hands of the City Council, Tomsic said.
    At the same time, city attorney John Sitkin is preparing his own report on whether the city can afford to close the airport, specifically in regard to lease, contract and grant issues.

— D.H.




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