At 85, local developer keeps on truckin’

Published on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 by By Tara Nelson

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In a time where small businesses are failing across the country, Bellingham’s Fairhaven district is bursting at the seams, and the man behind it all now has set his eyes on Blaine.

Bellingham resident and developer Ken Imus has been the driving force behind the renovation of Fairhaven and is now one of the visionaries – along with his sons, Brad and Tim – behind the renovation of the old Brown and Cole Red Apple grocery building on the corner of Peace Portal Drive and G Street (more recently known as the Worldly Treasures building).

Imus and his two sons also recently purchased the former Seavue theater property as well as another building in the 500 block of Peace Portal Drive. If successful, they said they hope to develop a town center in the same fashion as Fairhaven – but better.

And at 85 years old, the energetic Imus shows no sign of slowing down. Sitting at his desk, which is scattered with documents from various projects, he could concievably pass for 60 and at times has the exuberance of a teenager. He arrives at work each morning at 7 a.m. By 8:30 a.m., he’s on his third cup of coffee.

“I recently confessed to my wife that I’ve never worked a day in my life because whatever I’ve had to do for work, I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “I just recently started showing up to work at 7:30 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. For me, that’s sleeping in.”

But Imus, who has received countless accolades from local press and governments – including the city of Bellingham’s Lifetime Business Achievement award in 2007, would rather talk about the future of Blaine, a city that he said is “sitting on a marvelous piece of real estate and surrounded by Birch Bay, which is transforming into something fabulous.”

He recalled a story overheard about a group of women who took the Plover ferry from Semiahmoo to downtown Blaine only to find vacant storefronts. “When they came back, they told people don’t bother going over because there’s nothing there,” he said. “We’ve got some good, raw product in Blaine, but we need more activity. We hope we can get something like that started here – money isn’t the only objective here, part of what we’re doing is a labor of love.”

Imus’ plans for the two-story Blaine Bank Building includes a brick facade with a tower and “old world” architectural features he collected over the years such as old cast iron windows from Paris and London.

Two tennants have already signed leases, he said: Jack Niemann, who started the Black Forest Steakhouse restaurants in Canada and Blaine resident David Vargo, who has plans to open “Dairy Fresh,” a local and gourmet cheese and ice cream shop featuring Edaleen Dairy products. 

“We’re not going after Starbuck’s or other corporate chains,” he said. “We want local businesses. That’s what we did in Fairhaven – there’s not a corporate chain in there. We can’t compete with Bellis Fair, and why would we want to? There’s a lot more charm this way.”

Imus added that plans for a hotel in Blaine are possibly in the works but he couldn’t yet give specifics. He and Brad also developed the Fairhaven Village Inn, a 22-room hotel overlooking Bellingham Bay because he said the area lacked accommodations. The two later sold the hotel and were just able to recover their costs, but the real profit was the attraction it created, he said.

“We just thought it would be good for Fairhaven,” he said.

A labor of love

Imus was born in Bellingham and spent many summers visiting his grandparents in Birch Bay who moved to Point Whitehorn from Seattle in 1902.

He recalls taking an architecture class in high school in which the teacher told him it might not be the right career choice for him.

“He said, ‘Ken, this might not be your calling,’ and I think he was right,” Imus said. “I don’t have the patience to design buildings from start to finish. So the next year, I signed up for auto shop.”

After a short stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he moved to California with his wife, Barbara, and would go on to develop and operate several Ford dealerships across the country.

It was then Imus realized he enjoyed the building process more than maintaining those businesses and decided to make the transition to real estate developer.

“The excitement of seeing a building being re-developed – some people would be bored out of their skull but for me, I find it interesting and challenging,” he said.”

In the early 1970s, the couple moved back to Bellingham where Imus first set his eyes on Bellingham’s Fairhaven district – what he then called “the worst area in Bellingham,” full of run-down, historic buildings, many with boarded windows.

His son Brad joined him in 1978, when he moved from Texas to help his father as a property manager. Their first renovation together was the Mason block at 12th Avenue and Harris Street, where the family currently has an office. They also started the Jacaranda Corporation, which currently owns 40 properties and 12 buildings in Fairhaven and several properties in Blaine.

Today, Fairhaven has become a model of the “urban village,” a design concept that stresses high density, mixed-use zoning with retail shops on the ground level and residential units on top. The designed aims to reduce urban sprawl and dependency on the automobile.

Jacaranda architect Kathleen Hill, principal of the Salt Lake City-based Community Studio, said the concepts Ken and Brad put forth were ahead of their times. Hill, whose group is also working on a project on Port of Bellingham land in Blaine’s wharf district, said she often uses Fairhaven as an example of sustainability in design when teaching classes in urban planning and architecture at the University of Utah. 

“He and Brad developed Fairhaven intuitively,” she said. “Now you see all over the country this new urban village model as a response to the suburban model that basically failed America. And now Blaine will be the recipient of two individuals who have already achieved this and have done it well.”