Strong local turnout for port economic plan meeting

Published on Thu, Jun 6, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Strong local turnout for port economic plan meeting

By Meg Olson

“Our plan is to develop a blueprint for a vital economy in Whatcom County,” Port of Bellingham economic development director Steve Jilk told a room full of Blaine and Birch Bay residents and business owners. ‘“The process we’re involved in today is an opportunity for the community to tell us what they think opportunities are and where they see barriers.”

The May 29 meeting at the Blaine boating center was one of eight held in the county, through which the port plans to develop a comprehensive economic development strategy for greater Whatcom County. A 25-member advisory committee made up of representatives from labor, education, environmental groups, business, transportation, municipal governments and other county interests has been meeting since October to develop goals for economic development. “We think we have a good, broad perspective on the committee but we want to take it to the community to reflect other input,” Jilk said.

The advisory committee sifted through existing economic plans for cities and unincorporated areas in the county, county planning documents, retail and economic studies to identify commonalities. “We like to think of this as a plan of plans,” said port economic development specialist Dodd Snodgrass. “We want to incorporate what other communities have done.” They also reviewed several decades of data on population, employment, housing and land use in Whatcom County. They came up with six goals and strategies to implement those goals.

Armed with 18 blue dots each, close to 30 community members at the meeting identified which of the goals and strategies they saw as most important. For Blaine and Birch Bay, the top goal by a good margin was to “finance and maintain appropriate infrastructure for community and economic development,” which earned a total of 123 dots. Strategies to build on infrastructure that were the most favored included securing water rights, expanding utilities to create shovel-ready sites for industry and using the port’s taxing authority to move these projects forward.

“Sustainable development and uses of natural resources,” and “collaborative working relationships among economic development stakeholders,” were tied for second place as the most important goals with 95 dots. Protecting natural resources and promoting them as a draw for tourists were top strategies to accomplish the first goal. Fostering cross-border relationships was identified as the most important collaborative effort for boosting the local economy. “For Blaine, it’s obviously very important to work closely with British Columbia,” Snodgrass remarked.

Promoting a diverse economy earned 86 dots, with 22 of them going again to the strategy of providing sites ready for industry to move in, with the permits and utilities already in place. Increasing public involvement and providing and workforce retention were the lowest ranked goals but one strategy attracted 22 dots: developing a central computerized system to access project information, document drafts and other information related to the county’s economy.

Advisory committee member and county planning and development director Hal Hart said comparing results from different communities would give important information about how to coordinate priorities. “We want to get projects in sync so we can take advantage of the synergy of working together,” he said. The turnout for the Blaine/Birch Bay meeting was higher than previous meetings in other communities which drew from nine in Sumas to two in Lynden. A meeting in Point Roberts later in the week had 20 in the audience.

Snodgrass said input from all the communities visited would be reviewed by the advisory committee and incorporated into a final draft of the plan, due before county council at the end of July. Once the county officially adopts the plan, Jilk said, it will improve eligibility of local projects for state and federal funding. “They require that a community have such a strategy,” Jilk said of the federal economic development administration. “You can’t get funding for a project unless it’s in the plan.”

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