Developer Ken Imus' recently announced exit from the Blaine re-development scene has sparked some soul-searching and motivated a discussion on how to drive the Blaine economy forward.
“There are people who drive down I-5 every day and don’t even know Blaine is here,” realtor Mike Kent said at a joint work
session between Blaine city council, chamber of commerce and economic development advisory committee (EDAC) on February 4. “Businesses in Vancouver are hearing about other places, but not about Blaine.”
“We want to give businesses a good reason to choose Blaine over other locations,” said Kent, an EDAC member. “We’re sitting just across the fence from a robust economy of 2.5 million people, and we want to take advantage of that.”
The work session put plenty of ideas on the table, ranging from a revamped waterfront to an expanded industrial park or high-tech medical center. Developer Joe O’Brien gave the committee a run-through on what he had seen other communities do to encourage development.
“There are two things that businesses look for when they relocate: the cost of doing business and the availability of a workforce in that community,” he said. “It may seem very simple, but you have to look for those two things in your community.” O’Brien is in charge of the Marin condos project at Semiahmoo and an elected member of the Pueblo, Colorado economic development committee.
“In the 1980s there was a major steel company in Pueblo, the biggest in the West, and they crashed. It went from 15,000 people to 3,000 in a three-year period,” he said. “The city went into survival mode. About five years ago we began looking at the underlying problems and retention of local business. It used to be that you looked to bring in more businesses, but what researchers have found is that local businesses have more reasons to expand and just need help doing so.”
The city subsequently created the Pueblo Retention and Expansion Program (PREP) addresses the needs of existing businesses in Pueblo County for future sustainability and growth.”
“I’m not saying Blaine is in survival mode, but it is the perfect opportunity to see what we can do to help existing businesses
expand and get more businesses here, and to see what incentives you can give,” O’Brien said. “Eighty percent of new jobs and investments are created by local businesses, and small businesses are very appreciative of city officials asking how they are doing and how they can help. Small businesses are very easy to take care of, but they are also very easy to leave or fold. Once they are gone, you can’t get them back.”
O’Brien encouraged the city to reach out to state and local economic development offices and take advantage of the resources they provide, and to learn how to track local businesses and resources in a more effective way. “Find out what the obstacles are and fix them,” he said.
Kent suggested there existed a strong potential for a medical center in Blaine. Looking north at the thinly stretched Canadian healthcare system, he said the opportunity is ripe for Blaine.
“There’s a capacity problem in B.C.,” he said. “Right now there’s a 15-month wait for elective surgeries. If you throw your knee out, you’ll be living on that thing for who knows how long. In the U.S. there’s no such thing as a cash customer in the medical field, but Canadians are happy to pay cash to get quicker services. They come and pay cash for chemotherapy, MRIs … the list goes on. There’s not a reason in the world I can think of that they would want to go any further than they have to.”
Councilman Clark Cotner agreed. “I was just at a doctor’s office and the whole lobby was full of Canadians. They have a five-month wait to get an MRI at Peace Arch Hospital,” he said. “There are three cosmetic doctors who are leaving PeaceHealth right now and moving to Lynden to open their own practice. It’s a great opportunity.”
“My wife is a Canadian nurse who fled,” he continued, “They have doctors leaving Canada because their operating room hours
and surgery hours are being limited and they can’t make a living. They’re coming to the U.S., and nurses are coming to the U.S. They are leaving Canada, and there’s a golden opportunity for us. It’s time we do it.”
Not only is there a ready pool of doctors and nurses willing to re-locate, but Whatcom County has an award-winning nursing program at the community college and a 4-year program at WWU, council member Ken Oplinger noted.
“Bellingham could become a bedroom community for Blaine,” he said.
“The timing could not be better,” Kent said. “We have an idea, we have a location; we just need someone to take charge.”
“Who the heck is going to do it?” Blaine mayor Harry Robinson asked. “Who is going to provide the leadership, take responsibility and say, ‘I’ll be the one who succeeds or fails’? We don’t have an individual who can do that.”
City planner Michael Jones suggested the need for accountability and asked for a methodical approach. “There needs to be a strategy and not just a response,” he said.
“It’s not easy to build a town,” said EDAC member and local realtor Ron Freeman. “We want to make sure we are all speaking with the same voice going forward, and we need to do something different than other communities to entice people to come here.”