Will a growing Bellingham International Airport boost commerce?

Inspired by direct flights from Bellingham to Hawaii, Wiki Wiki Park ‘n’ Shuttle has distilled the thrills of a tropical vacation into a parking lot.

“It’s a niche,” said co-owner Ernie Henken, who runs the airport parking and shuttle company with his wife, Velma. “We’re just looking for the right niche.”

The Henkens, who founded Wiki Wiki on Pacific Highway in 2011, are seeing the benefits of growth and expansion at the airport.

By the end of this year, Port of Bellingham officials project nearly 575,000 passengers will have used the airport in 2012. That figure would continue the strong year-over-year growth at the airport since 2005, which has been largely fueled by Canadian passengers.

Dan Zenk, the port’s aviation director, has forecast 12-15 percent annual passenger growth for the next 5-10 years.

“It’s somewhat conservative,” Zenk said, “but that’s the trend I’m seeing now with the month-to-month numbers.”

The Henkens are not the only business owners turning the expanding airport into a business opportunity.

But whether future growth will trickle down into new commercial endeavors is a question with no concrete answer, said Troy Muljat, a commercial real estate broker with the Muljat Group in Bellingham.

Muljat said he sees potential for new service-oriented businesses near the airport, including hotels, retail stores and restaurants. Yet he pointed out commercial vacancy in the area is at roughly the same level it was five years ago.

“I’m very optimistic on commercial real estate in Bellingham in general,” Muljat said. “The airport area is not good or bad, it’s just a limited market. It’s untested and unproven.”

Though Wiki Wiki’s success can be attributed to the airport, Velma and Ernie Henken said the business also depends on their quality, and sometimes quirky, customer service.

Travelers get more than a long-term parking spot and a ride to the terminal. The Henkens provide luggage ID tags in their main office and a baggage scale so travelers can make sure their carry-ons will pass airlines’ weight limitations. They also include a variety of “island” elements such as leis, luau music and non-alcoholic mai tais.

Velma Henken said the service extras are meant to turn airport parking, which she considers one of the most stressful parts of a vacation, into a proper send-off for people heading to Hawaii.

“It gets the vacation started,” she said. “We really want to take the stress out of this for people.”

Could city growth spur commerce?

Bellingham City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the city’s northern 1st Ward that includes neighborhoods and shopping sectors near the airport, said if two planned hotels in the area—a La Quinta Inn on Bakerview Road and a Marriot Spring Hill Suites on Northwest Avenue—are completed, it could help support new economic development.

But Weiss was not sure the airport could be credited as a driver of commercial activity.

He said one thing that could help development of new business was a potential city annexation of a 175-acre chunk of property just west of Interstate 5 and bordering the eastern edge of airport property.

City Council approved the annexation in 2007. At the time, city officials valued the property—known as the Bennett/Bakerview/Airport Drive area—at more than $31 million.

Weiss said he was “fairly confident” the annexation could be finalized within the next few years.

“The true commerce component I think will be when there is an annexation of the area west of the interchange,” Weiss said. “If that area does get annexed, then there’s going to be an opportunity for considerable commercial development.”

However, Lydia Bennett, the Port of Bellingham’s business development director, didn’t agree that the annexation would automatically boost business.

Bennett acknowledged that businesses within the annexation area would benefit from lower insurance costs due to being covered by city services such as fire protection. But business owners would also be required to pay city taxes and fees, she said.

“I don’t see a huge boost,” Bennett said. “It’s pretty much a wash.”

Master plan will include business expansion 

The Port of Bellingham has its own development plans.

With a new airport master plan in the works, which officials said could be presented to the port’s board of commissioners by the end of the year, Bennett said business growth has been a major factor of the update process.

In September, the port plans to request qualifications and revisions from developers interested in available port property adjacent to the airport on Mitchell Way.

Bennett said the location could be a good spot for a hotel or aviation-related business.

“We’re interested in seeing what a developer would envision for this property,” she said.

She added that the updated master plan should include new initiatives to attract tenants, particularly long-term companies, to the airport’s industrial park.

Bright times ahead

At Wiki Wiki, Ernie Henken said he’s preparing for a jump in customers once new flights to Hawaii start in November.

The company’s lot typically has 35-40 cars come through each month, he said. At the moment, Wiki Wiki’s capacity is 60 cars, but with additional land at its disposal, Ernie Henken said the business could potentially increase more than threefold.

While there is an element of uncertainty to their future, the Henkens are optimistic.

The Bellingham airport’s low cost to both passengers and airlines, coupled with the millions of potential passengers within driving distance of Bellingham have them both thinking they’ve hit an investment jackpot.

But it’s not just the money that has them excited. With Wiki Wiki’s focus on Hawaii-bound passengers, it’s also the chance to work in a vacation atmosphere every day of the week.

“When you think about it, this is the perfect place to be,” Ernie Henken said. “We plan on staying in this business. This is fun.”

First of two parts: Next month, find out why some businesses and homeowners are unhappy with airport officials’ expansion plans. 

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