By Stefanie Donahue
Last week, the city of Blaine welcomed Michael Jones as interim city manager.
Jones began transitioning to the position in April after being appointed by Blaine City Council. He stepped into the position officially on June 15, the day Dave Wilbrecht retired. He’ll serve in the position on an interim basis until October, at which time city council will decide whether to make the appointment permanent.
“I’m thrilled about the opportunity and excited to be working with the city council,” Jones said in a press release after he was appointed. Previously, he was the city’s community development director. “Blaine has some significant challenges and opportunities ahead. We’re seeing increasing development activity, we’re undergoing multiple staff transitions and we’re experiencing ongoing budget challenges.”
“This is a dynamic time,” he added.
Prior to working in civic government, Jones was serving guests at hotels and resorts across the U.S. He studied hospitality management in college and had an interest in becoming a professional chef.
Quickly, he said, “I realized in the first year I didn’t want to be in the kitchen … It’s very intense.” Jones ended up working seasonally in hotel management. Along the way, he met his wife, Barbara.
“I’ve lived and worked in Vermont and Massachusetts and Florida and Colorado and then ended up here,” he said, referencing Whatcom County. “[We] wanted to settle down and actually put roots somewhere and have kids and a different kind of life.”
Spurred by an interest in development, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and environmental resource management, with a minor in economics, from Western Washington University in 1998.
“I realized after a while that I wanted to do something that was more impactful,” he said about his work in hospitality. “I decided, for me, something more impactful would be helping form and evolve and direct communities, rather than just visit them.”
Out of college, Jones and his family moved to Sacramento, California, where he worked as a GIS analyst for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and as an environmental analyst, evaluating the impact of development on the environment, for Sacramento County.
He also spent time at home, caring for his kids, Dillon, who is now age 23, and Madison, now 20.
“As a result of some soul searching, we decided that as much as we loved California, we really wanted to move back to a small town and we wanted to raise our kids in a smaller community,” he said. “We tried to move back to the northwest and we did – we succeeded.”
Jones got a job working for the city of Ferndale holding titles as associate and senior planner. In 2007, he was hired by the city of Blaine to manage permits in the planning department. A few years later, he became community development director, overseeing a department of five people.
Work in Blaine
Jones is proud of the plans he has helped develop for Blaine’s future.
“They’re important because they actualize the city’s vision and what the city wants to be when it grows up,” he said. “As planners, that’s what we work to do. We work to help people formulate their vision for the future.”
While in the planning department, Jones created a plan to help stimulate growth in east Blaine and had a hand in updating the city’s shoreline management master program and comprehensive plan. He had a large role in moving the Grandis Pond and East Maple Ridge development projects through the planning process.
The two projects, in addition to Bridges Plat, are planned for east Blaine and, combined, contain more than 1,400 lots. Plats for all three projects were approved between 2010 and 2011 but have yet to begin due to a lack of infrastructure, such as sewer and power.
“I learned a lot about the community,” Jones said about his work at the planning department. “I love the feel of the community. I’ve come to really appreciate the residents. The place, the beauty of the area, the friendliness of the people, and just the atmosphere here.”
He loves the area so much that he and his wife recently built a home, just outside of city limits.
Jones applied for the city manager position when it became available in 2013 and didn’t get the job.
He said, “I realized it was important for me to grow my overall knowledge of government and organizational development … and to go ahead and get a master’s.”
Accordingly, Jones graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in public administration this month. He also completed a two-year program with the International City/County Management Association, intended for individuals who are pursuing leadership roles.
Looking ahead, Jones said one significant challenge the city is facing is retirement and succession planning.
“We have quite a few people now, particularly in our public works department, who are at or near retirement age,” he said.
He said his appointment will allow him to evolve the culture of the workforce and open the door for potential restructuring.
“The budget is another really big challenge for us,” he said. “The increase in cost of doing business is outpacing revenue production or the increasing rate of revenue production.”
The city will need to look at ways to economize, he said.
“The reality is, in order to provide better services, or in order to expand any services we probably will need to expand staffing,” he said. “To expand staffing, you have to have a stable, ongoing revenue source and so that’s our conundrum.”
That’s why boosting development and selling the remainder of the city’s Gateway Parcel, the former site of the Blaine Municipal Airport, is crucial for the city in the longterm, he said.
“The opportunity there is to bring in enough development that supports those needs and makes it so we can provide the services that we’d like to provide and the citizens would like to have,” he said. “We need to explore all those options.”
Jones said he would also like to see more activity in Blaine’s downtown and that he’s proud of the progress the city has made in recent years.
“I really feel like we’re at a tipping point where there’s synergy between the different uses,” he said. “If we could just add a couple things to keep that rolling, I really kind of feel like we’re at that spot.”
He added, “It is definitely getting close, all the time, to being a true destination like La Conner or Fairhaven.”