It’s about time for downtown Blaine to grow up
By John Choulochas
Recent articles in The Northern Light (July 19-25) and Bellingham Herald (July 22) reminded me of what I wrote about in the Oct. 15-21, 1998 issue of The Northern Light under the heading "Downtown Blaine 2008.” It was a description prompted by the chamber board of directors and other interested citizens involved in revitalizing downtown business.
Back in 1998, city and chamber officials and a group of residents were talking about the future of the city’s downtown. What was needed, they agreed, were more shops, more stores and some eateries that would bring folks back to downtown. I went so far as to say that Blaine in 2008 would have “busy streets, bustling shops and a thriving community attracting thousands of visitors each year.”
Citizen groups and the city’s government had been wrestling with the questions asking what to do since the Canadians quit coming to Blaine to buy milk, cheese, shoes and gasoline. Those were “the good times.” So in October 1998, I wrote an editorial in The Northern Light that predicted what Blaine’s downtown from the entry/exit at Interstate 5 exit to the 900 block of Peace Portal Drive would be like in 2008. I said it “would bustle with shops, cafes and art galleries.” Pretty exciting stuff back then for those of us who had a vision. And it was exciting enough for the city to engage the services of a consultant who provided an extensive plan to generate tourism and list a number of things that could be done to encourage downtown revitalization and commercial development.
But sadly, 9-11 happened and made a difficult climate even tougher for those operating small businesses here and those considering the possibility of locating in Blaine. At the same time, growth in business north and farther south of the border brought competing restaurants, retail shops and grocery stores.
By 2007, many did come, but not to visit Blaine in the record numbers that had been hoped for. What did come however, was part of a boardwalk and a magnificent statue honoring the Icelandic population which supported salmon processing and helped Blaine become a thriving community in an age before freeways and shopping centers. One can also speculate that in 2000 a new city manager and planner decided what was to happen. Their priority was to let the city be reborn as a replica of a turn of the century fishing village, and they will come. They said build a boardwalk and it will bring even more visitors to our city.
Unfortunately, it would not be a priority to include public restrooms at a downtown Visitor Information Center in a location that tourists could easily find. No one seems to have given serious consideration either to attracting affordable tourist accommodations. It could be a modern but simple motel that could provide overnight shelter for those who opted not to visit the Resort at Semiahmoo.
It would be a shame, however, not to mention that many people do come to downtown Blaine now. The post office, banks and gas stations, though reduced in numbers, have continued to serve customers from both sides of the border. The parity of the Canadian dollar will likely continue to provide reasons for Canadians to come south.
On the other hand, during this same time, White Rock and South Surrey have experienced record growth, as did Birch Bay. Even so, Blaine downtown traffic and buildings still look no different in 2007 than they did in 1997, except for the street end plazas with the wonderful sculpture and the new offices of Trillium. If this is the case, one wonders what happened.
Are any changes to be still “in the future?” The latest encouragements for development are welcome news to existing downtown businesses. As I understand it, the city has sent representatives to Mainstreet USA revitalization conferences this year and last. We have yet to hear about their plans and how they coincide with the GSA border construction and the truck crossing highway improvements.
I would hope that the proposed municipal code changes will accelerate the growth and revitalization of the downtown that is “the face of our city to the world.” I admit that my projection of what Blaine downtown would look like in 2008 may have been premature, but it’s still better late than never.