Given a choice between studying retail development or the feasibility of an Amtrak stop, Blaine City Council chose the retail option, hands-down.
Blaine City Council approved a study on retail development in the area, but the future of an Amtrak stop was a hot topic as well.
At council’s regular meeting on February 9, city manager Dave Wilbrecht reported that the Port of Bellingham offers annual grants to small cities to fund economic development. Blaine is eligible for up to $20,000, which Wilbrecht said the city was likely to receive if they could offer matching funds. Wilbrecht suggested putting the grant money towards one of two projects: either a retail recruitment study or a feasibility study for a new Amtrak stop in Blaine.
The retail recruitment study would include an analysis of the Blaine market demographics as a way of attracting new businesses to the city and offer potential new businesses an idea of what kinds of retailers would appeal to local and visiting shoppers. The study would cost between $50,000 and $60,000.Wilbrecht, who has been acting as the interim chair of the economic development advisory committee, supported the recruitment study.
“My recommendation is to do the recruitment study,” Wilbrecht said. “It’s short-term and can be completed by the end of the year. The port is looking to fund projects that have defined start and end points, and this is something we could do within a calendar year that would show them exactly where their money went.”
Community development director Michael Jones said the recruitment study would differ from a similar analysis published by Hebert Research in 2013. The Hebert study determined the feasibility of industrial development in Blaine, while the recruitment study would focus on retail shopping patterns.
The other proposal in consideration was a feasibility study for a new Amtrak station in Blaine. The train study would determine potential ridership and identify any obstacles in setting up a commuter train station in Blaine. The estimated cost of the study is $65,000.
Conversations about refurbishing the defunct Blaine train station into a working hub between Vancouver and Portland have been going on for years. The project had momentum in 2012, when the station was declared an endangered historical property, but talks between the city, state and railroad stalled.
A study would spell out what criteria the city would need to meet to get an Amtrak station approved, as well as provide a timeline.
Council agreed that the retail recruitment study would be the smartest use of the money in the short term, but councilmember Bonnie Onyon was reluctant to put the train study on the backburner.
“We’ve put this out there, we’ve made it public knowledge that we’re interested in getting this going,” she said. “I just don’t want to see it stall out again.”
Onyon proposed funding both studies using money from the city’s Rural Economic Development (RED) loans account.
The RED loans program was instituted in Blaine in 1999. The loans, which were overseen by a small committee, offered zero-interest loans to new businesses and existing businesses looking to expand operations.
The program was discontinued in 2010, but the city still has $250,000 in the account, which can be allocated to studies like the retail recruitment study. Finance director Jeff Lazenby said once the money from the RED loans account is gone, the city isn’t likely to get much more.
“The account is self-replenishing at this point. A few years back it was funded by a grant from the state, so there is no longer any new money coming into that,” he said. “We receive payments from people who’ve taken out loans, and we receive interest on investments, but it isn’t much. If we use that money for these studies, that money is gone, so we need to think carefully if this is what we want to spend it on. ”
Wilbrecht estimated doing both studies could cost around $100,000.
Faced with a pressing deadline, the council decided to support the retail recruitment study by a vote of 6–0, but no one on the council was willing to put the train study to rest just yet.
“The train study may be a little too complex for us to tackle tonight,” Mayor Harry Robinson said.
The council and staff agreed to arrange meetings with representatives from Auburn and the Washington State Department of Transportation and reconvene in the next few weeks.