Year in review: top 10 stories of 2010

From airport construction to Horizon Bank closing, 2010 sure wasn't a boring year.

By Isaac Bonnell

A lot can happen in a year. Entire industries can shift and new markets spring up where previously there were none.

But sometimes, despite our constant hope, things just stay the same. For most people, 2010 was a year of waiting — waiting for business to pick up, waiting to hear back about that new job, waiting for that unemployment benefit check to come.

2010 was by no means boring, though. With the Olympics just an hour away in Vancouver, B.C., we couldn’t get much closer to such an international event. And then of course there was the hubbub over new airport screening procedures, endless debates over health care reform, and to top it off, the largest oil spill in the history of the United States.

Here in Whatcom County, there weren’t any wikileaks or volcanic eruptions, but there was still plenty to talk about. The following is a list of The BBJ’s top 10 stories of the year:

1. Election extravaganza

Even though it wasn’t a presidential election year, the November ballot was full of notable political races and also had six initiatives, the most since the process was introduced in 1913.

Some familiar faces were back in the political circus last year. Dino Rossi campaigned against Sen. Patty Murray and Tea Party candidate John Koster was back in the ring taking on Congressman Rick Larsen. But, unlike some incumbents, these longtime politicians withstood the anti-incumbent wave.

Judging by the amount of campaign spending, the initiatives were the bigger issues on the ballot. In total, $61.8 million was spent on the initiatives, compared to $46.4 million spent on the political races. Reading up on the initiatives was like a crash course in American government; everything from legislative processes to taxes to the role of government in private industries was on the table for discussion.

2. Budget cuts

The outlook for state and local government budgets didn’t get any brighter in 2010. It seemed like every other month a new budget forecast was released showing that the problem was worse than previously thought.

Without much fat left to trim, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a 6.3 percent across-the-board cut in September. Every part of the state budget was trimmed, from education to health care.

The forecast for 2011 and 2012 isn’t much better and more cuts are anticipated. The implications of these ongoing cuts are far-reaching and have yet to be fully felt, meaning this issue won’t go away any time soon.

3. Airport expansion

The largest project ever undertaken by the Port of Bellingham took place last year at the Bellingham International Airport. The $29 million project was primarily funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and closed the airport for three weeks in September while crews repaved the 6,701-foot-long runway.

The port also started design work on what is slated to be an even bigger project: a $30 million expansion of the commercial terminal. The project is expected to span three years and increase the terminal from 30,000 square feet to more than 80,000 square feet.

In other airport news, Alaska Airlines announced that it will offer daily flights direct from Bellingham to Honolulu starting Jan. 7.

4. B.C. sales tax exemption

In a surprise announcement, the Department of Revenue ruled in June that residents of British Columbia would be exempted from paying sales tax when buying goods from Washington retailers.

The controversial ruling was a response to the new Harmonized Sales Tax in Canada, which was deemed a value-added tax and not a sales tax.

The exemption was eventually temporarily put on hold after last minute lawsuits were filed by the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County the day before the exemption was scheduled to take effect July 1.

5. Recession declared over

The National Bureau of Economic Research made a shocking announcement in September: The recession had ended. Not only that, but it ended a while ago, in June 2009.

There were some bright spots in the economy last year. Retailers saw small gains as consumers started spending money on higher-priced items again.

The bad news, though: “Credit bubbles take many years to grow out of; it can take six to seven years. They just don’t heal like a normal recession does,” Regional Labor Economist Reinhold Groepler said in a November BBJ article.

6. Unemployment lingers

The jobless recovery became a reality in 2010. Unemployment levels in Washington reached a peak of 9.5 percent in March.

Throughout the year, though, Whatcom County dropped from 9.3 percent unemployment in January to 7.9 percent in November, well below state and national averages.

The issue was compounded at the end of the year when Congress debated whether to extend federal unemployment benefits, which it did three weeks after the benefits expired.

“This is welcome news for unemployed workers who are having a hard time finding a job,” Joel Sacks, deputy commissioner for the Employment Security Department, said in a press release at the time. “We need to keep a safety net in place until the economy gathers more steam.”

7. Horizon Bank sold

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since federal regulators seized and sold Horizon Bank, which was headquartered in Bellingham.

Horizon Bank was the first Washington bank to be shut down in 2010. Washington Federal, headquartered in Seattle, took over the bank, which had approximately $1.3 billion in total assets and $1.1 billion in total deposits.

8. New developments

It was a slow year in real estate development and construction, but nonetheless, there are a few new additions to Bellingham’s skyline.

The first Bellwether Gate building was completed this summer and anchor tenant CH2M HILL moved in at the beginning of August.

The Bellingham Housing Authority started construction on Walton Place Two, the second part of its mixed use development along North State Street.

None of the proposed hotels have broken ground yet, but at least we finally know what is happening up at Barkley Village — a 16-screen movie theater.

9. Changes at the top

After 15 months of searching, the Port of Bellingham finally picked Charlie Sheldon from the Port of Seattle to replace Jim Darling as executive director. Sheldon started his new job Oct. 18.

Charlie Sheldon (center) joined the Port of Bellingham in October 2010 as the new executive director. Isaac Bonnell | BBJ

There were also some personnel changes at the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department. Tim Stewart left his post as the planning director in May, and the city hired Whatcom County planning director David Stalheim to be the new block grant program manager.

In hindsight, one of the more prominent changes was Larry Wieber stepping down in March from his position as CEO of Aluminum Chambered Boats, a company he founded in 1998. The company closed in November.

10. Openings and closings

When jobs are scarce, people go out and create their own jobs. This year we saw a whole bunch of new businesses open in Bellingham.

Plan B Saloon opened on New Year’s Eve, but didn’t make it through the year. Bellingham saw an infusion of new restaurants to satisfy every palate, from Man Pies to The Table to The Fountain Bistro.

Pastazza closed its doors in November. Owners Fred and Lynn Berman retired after 27 years in the restaurant business.

Bakerview Square filled out this year with V’s Barbershop, The Fireside and Charter College, among others.

For the adventurous, Kite Paddle Surf opened down near Squalicum Harbor. And for those who love to browse, the Bellingham Flea Market opened this summer with a hodgepodge of knickknacks and oddities.

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