Good schools a big factor in attracting businesses

Published on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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A recent study of Blaine’s economic development potential focuses on attracting medical centers and niche manufacturing companies, and provides some key insights into the elements that make Blaine a prime business location.

The report, carried out by Bellevue-based Hebert Research, includes surveys of Canadian residents and questionnaire responses from a variety of regional businesses.

Funding for the $30,000 study came in equal parts from the Port of Bellingham and Blaine’s Rural Economic Development Revolving Fund (a city fund started in 1999 that is paid for by a contribution from the City of Blaine Electric Utility and a public utility tax credit).

Begun in March, after Blaine City Council authorized it, the study aimed to determine what types of businesses would be interested in opening a location in Blaine. It specifically analyzed a 27-acre parcel of land south of H Street, north of Pipeline Road, east of SR 543 and west of O’Dell Road. The city-owned property was formerly the site of the Blaine Municipal Airport, which was shut down in 2005.

More than 50 businesses from Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia responded to questionnaires about what they seek in a new business location. General hospitals, computer programming companies and scientific research companies made up a majority of the rwesponding sample.

The most important factor for responding businesses in terms of a business location was access to quality schools, at both K-12 and post-secondary levels. Blaine’s high-performing schools were considered to be a positive attribute, and close proximity to colleges, universities and technical schools was an important factor for more than half of respondents.

The second most important factor was proximity to Seattle and Vancouver. “This is something that Blaine should feature widely in its marketing and recruiting efforts,” stated the report’s executive summary.

Researchers conducted a telephone survey of Canadians from the Lower Mainland to determine the potential for a medical facility in Blaine. The theory was that Canadians might visit a medical facility across the border in order to avoid the long wait times associated with Canadian healthcare, especially in outpatient areas such as elective surgery. However, the survey showed that interest in such a facility is low, and overall satisfaction with the Canadian healthcare system is high.

“It would be difficult to entice citizens to cross the border to pay for procedures that are covered by their current healthcare provider,” the report stated.

For city manager Dave Wilbrecht, the unused former site of the Blaine Municipal Airport represents an opportunity to bring in businesses that contribute to the city’s long-term economic health.

“We want to encourage high quality wage-paying jobs, so people will buy a home and have their children go to school here,” he said. “So it’s not just selling the property and being done with it. It’s really trying to fashion an outcome that serves a long-term vision.”

Hospitals bring in a highly trained workforce, and are an example of the type of business the city is seeking for the space, Wilbrecht said.

“A local example is the wastewater treatment facility. It’s a very high-level operation that requires a lot of technology to run the thing. So that means education, training, certifications and so forth. Those [facilities] drive good living wages,” he said. “We’re also looking at niche manufacturing companies. For example, there’s a knife manufacturer in town (Silver Stag Knives) that’s a great, viable business that makes a very high quality product. Those are exactly the types of businesses we want here.”

Wilbrecht said there are still several steps to go before Blaine can begin actively seeking businesses for the property. City council will weigh in on the study, and more research may need to be conducted.

Wilbrecht emphasized the importance of working with the local business community.

“For the city to do this work in isolation is probably a big mistake, so I would suggest we go to the properties and businesses that surround that area and meet with those folks. They themselves are in business, know people, and might have business interest in doing something there themselves,” he said.

Once all parties involved determined a focus for the property, Wilbrecht said the city council would have to wrestle with how to market it.

“We can’t use a shotgun approach, because we’ll only hit a target by accident,” he said.

The study describes a key condition that makes a place an ideal location for business called convergence.

“Certain characteristics, elements, infrastructure, dynamics and economics combine to make something happen,” Wilbrecht explained. “The question is, does this property have the capacity for convergence? We’ll be looking at the Canadian population, proximity to Seattle, I-5, the waterfront, schools, harbors and port opportunities, to see if there’s a sense of convergence here.”

Wilbrecht said the Hebert study has been a good first step.

“You can guess all day long, but it’s not until you actually study the market that you can begin to make some decisions about how to use the property,” he said.