May the wind be at your back and the road rise up to meet you...

Published on Thu, Mar 29, 2001 by Meg Olson

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May the wind be at your back and the road rise up to meet you...

By Meg Olson

John Hobberlin is leaving the town he has served as mayor for almost ten years with a mixture of satisfaction and trepidation. While he feels his leadership has led Blaine in the right direction, he isn’t so sure the community has the momentum to stay the course and reach its potential.

“If you took the amount of vacant businesses in 1993 and today, it’s about the same but the groundwork’s been laid for things to happen,” he said in a March 19 interview. “Now’s the time to fish or cut bait.”

Hobberlin was first elected to city council in 1992, and he has served as mayor since then. “I ran on a platform of ABC: accountability, budget and consensus. Those have been good guidelines.”

He said some of his and fellow council members’ accomplishments have included hiring city managers to manage the budget and build reserves, developing goals for the city and building a cohesive team. “For the past few years the city has benefited from a cohesive council – probably the best in the county for seeing and debating the issues but still reaching a consensus,” he said. “The staff is also very strong now – we have a good crew.”

Changes in how the city is run have helped turn Blaine around, Hobberlin said. “You have to put your house in order before you invite people in,” he said. “It took Blaine a while to get where it is and it’ll take a while to get out.”

While he felt Blaine had turned a positive corner in recent years, Hobberlin said no amount of studies and new streets will help the city unless the community rethinks its identity and moves away from an economy permanently wed to the border. “I see Blaine developing through tourism. I still envision Blaine looking like White Rock some day – our niche will be uniqueness,” he said, but gas stations, gambling bars and border brokerages won’t get Blaine there. “More or less, aside from that, you get in your car and go someplace. What’s to stay here for? How many resort areas have a whole block of bars and pulltabs? What is there that would bring families in?”

Hobberlin feels it is somewhat naive to see Blaine developing a big employment base through industry. “I don’t think it’s the cost, I think there’s no demand,” he said. He added some lowering of costs might encourage businesses to locate in Blaine, but that the city was now comparable with other Whatcom County communities. “Nature’s Path came here after looking throughout the county because financially it made sense,” he said.

When new industry does locate in Blaine, Hobberlin said he didn’t think it was likely to raise the median income. “The economic forecasts point to more jobs but not necessarily higher paying ones,” he said. “Development needs to reflect that.”

The recent downtown improvements could be a first step for Blaine to develop a new direction, Hobberlin said. “From the time I came here until today, the atmosphere has become very positive,” he said. “Things like the street improvements bring people pride. They don’t have to apologize for their streets, or for their city council being a circus.”

To face the challenges ahead, from sewer woes to a crumbling city hall, council will have to face financial realities and keep property taxes rising with inflation, Hobberlin said. “Over the past five years council took the position they’d like to keep property tax at the same level. The citizens certainly got bang for their buck but everything goes up. If you don’t increase your income as expenses go up, you run out of money. The best approach would be to raise taxes a small amount every year,” he said.

Long-term solutions to Blaine’s problems would be tied to Birch Bay in more ways than sewer treatment, Hobberlin said. “In terms of providing what needs to be provided to citizens, in the long term Blaine should combine with Birch Bay,” he said. A united Blaine and Birch Bay would form a city similar in size to Ferndale, and improve both communities’ ability to get grants and bonds for large projects. “Under one administration you could better deal with land use, growth and resources,” he said. “This area is going to grow. If you start looking 20 years out regional solutions are the way to go, but it takes a lot of time, effort and money.”

Regarding the future of the airport, one of the issues that first drew Hobberlin to city politics, he sees more smoke than fire. “What’s the big hurry about trying to move the airport?” he said. “The property’s not going to become less valuable over time.” He added that, as Blaine grows, it might benefit from having an airport. “What major city doesn’t?” he asked, adding that runway improvements could bring light air-freight into Blaine, an economic development opportunity. “That would make adjacent land even more valuable,” he said.

As city council prepares to choose a new mayor, Hobberlin has some advice: “You need a mayor who works well with people, has leadership abilities and can make an important time commitment. We need a person who can make the time commitment to go to Olympia, know people, be a player,” he said. “If you had a mayor who only did the ceremonial minimum, Blaine would survive but if you get out of the mainstream, you’re out of gas.” Hobberlin has maintained a seat on numerous state and county boards and commissions, working to maintain a high profile for the city. “It took me a long time to get there but it’s important Blaine stay involved.”

Hobberlin and wife Nancy are moving to Black Diamond, Florida in pursuit of more days of sunshine and the perfect game of golf. “I spent eight very positive years in city government, it’s been challenging and fulfilling, but I would not have run again,” he said. “I feel great but I’m still 71 – going downhill not up.”

At his last city council meeting March 26, Hobberlin received accolades from his colleagues on council and members of the public.

“It is amazing to me what John has done for this city, the influence he has had in so many avenues,” said John Liebert. A former high school teacher, Liebert singled out Hobberlin’s work with local schools for praise, pointing to his creation of youth in government day. “He motivated me to be a better citizen,” he said.

Dieter Schugt, who will take Hobberlin’s place at the gavel as mayor pro-tem until council selects the next mayor, said Hobberlin had insured Blaine was on the agenda at the county, state and federal level. “He really put Blaine on the map,” he said.

Hobberlin applauded city staff and council members for working cohesively for the good of the city and its citizens. “I think the city is going in a positive direction,” he said. “Stay the course.”

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