Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce honors Ken Hertz as Whatcom's 2012 "Man of the Year"

Published on Wed, Dec 19, 2012 by Brandy Kiger

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It’s easy to look around and see how former Bellingham mayor Ken Hertz has left his mark on Whatcom County over the past 40 years. There are 4,000 acres of county parks that are the result of his dedication to public recreation and open space. In recognition of his efforts, a trail was named for him.

But beautiful parks and trails were not the apogee of his career – they were merely the beginning. Hertz has had his hand in projects that have shaped the development and growth of the county. Think Bellis Fair Mall for starters. 

With so many accomplishments, it’s no wonder that the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce  & Industry selected Ken Hertz as their 2012 Man of the Year on December 5.

Generally, the chamber’s lifetime achievement award goes to someone who has retired but, in Hertz’s case, the committee 
made an exception. “The committee wanted to honor him for his leadership in the community, even though he is still active,” said Ken Oplinger, president of the chamber. “There is so much he has done. He’s had two turns as mayor, and from a business standpoint, he’s had a substantial impact in the county. Any of the things he’s done would generally be enough for one lifetime in order to be honored.”

His tenure as director of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation for 10 years (1965-1975), and two terms as mayor of Bellingham (1976-1984), was marked by a commitment to excellence, a penchant for environmental preservation and a drive to succeed. “If we were going to develop something, it was going to be done right,” he said.

Under his leadership, the county acquired 4,000 acres of parkland and developed Samish Lake, Hovander Homestead Park, and Pine and Cedar Lakes. He focused on making them accessible while preserving the environment. His designs were award-winning, and within seven years, Whatcom County’s park system was voted among the nation’s best, according to a 1972 The Seattle Times article. 

As parks director, Hertz established several outdoor programs, such as Outdoor Arts, senior citizens programs and an outdoor environmental program. Even still, Hertz said there is more to be done. “There are a lot of parks that haven’t been developed,” he said. “There’s a lot of waterfront that hasn’t been touched.” 

Hertz, a self-proclaimed “do-er,” looked for a new challenge, and found it as mayor of Bellingham. During his time in office, he was sometimes considered controversial, but there was no doubt that Hertz wasted no time in propelling the city forward. “There was so much change that was needed,” he said. “Just changing the good ol’ boy system was a big challenge. You almost had to be controversial to do it. We weren’t accepting people off the street anymore, but instead hiring the best people for the job.”

One of the first things he worked on was instituting policies and procedures for the city. “There weren’t any policies in place, and there were 500 city employees,” Hertz said. “Things needed to change.” 

While some may not have liked his approach (he was once kicked in the leg by a woman because of his sidewalk revitalization plan), it was his hard-hitting drive that moved the city forward. “It was a good thing that we were under a strong mayoral system,” he said, noting that he could only be fired by citizens. “It was a much better system. I would have been fired by the city council [if it had been their choice.]”

Hertz initiated major projects that changed the face of Bellingham, such as building a new transit facility, improving the city’s water treatment facility, expanding Alabama Street to four lanes and bringing the Alaska Ferry Terminal to Bellingham. “I fought the political and economic battles for the community because I believed in doing the best development we could possibly afford,” he wrote in a guest editorial. 

“He knew where the community needed to go and was willing to step on toes to get there,” Oplinger said. Hertz was the first mayor of Bellingham trained as a professional administrator, and he proved he knew his subject matter, using his knowledge to procure federal funding for city improvements. 

Hertz fought and won many battles during his two mayoral terms but it was the one he lost that drove him in a new direction. He was a strong supporter of siting a shopping mall in downtown Bellingham but ultimately he lost the battle. 

“I didn’t want downtown to shrivel up and blow away,” he said. He felt a shopping center would revitalize downtown, but opposition to parking garages proved insurmountable. It was at this point that he decided to join Trillium Corporation and help build Bellis Fair. 

“If we couldn’t have it downtown, then we were going to do the best job that we could in another location. If you can’t win, you’ve got to join the winning group and make sure it’s done right,” he said. 

Recently divorced at the time, he only planned to work for Trillium for six months, just until his youngest son had graduated. But six months turned into nearly a decade with the developer.

After Bellis Fair, the company worked on the Cordata mixed-use business development in north Bellingham. “My roots are environmental preservation and parks, and the company has done a lot,” he said. The Cordata business park included plenty of open space and trails in its design. 

Hertz’s work with Trillium stretched north to Semiahmoo as managing director of the resort, and eventually to all of Trillium’s North and South American assets. “I just enjoyed it,” Hertz said. “It was a challenge.” During his tenure at Trillium, the company’s holdings expanded to more than 230 properties in 18 states, two Canadian provinces and Chile. 

“We always worked with an eye toward preservation and an eye toward quality,” Hertz said. “I feel we have nothing to be embarrassed about.” 

A decade later, Hertz decided once again to shift gears. With his children now in their 20s and 30s, he wanted to spend more time with them, and so he struck out on his own. 

In 1992, he and his wife Kathy created Blossom Management Corporation, and have since worked on projects in more than 14 communities in seven states. 

Hertz said the key to his success was that he never did anything he didn’t enjoy. “The most significant thing is to change careers every 10 years or so,” he said. “You have to challenge yourself every so often, and in my case, it was every 10 years. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would have gotten out.” 

Now 77, he is still going. “I don’t have any interest in retiring, and it doesn’t make any sense when there’s still such life out 
there,” Hertz said. And he means it. He’s actively planning and developing properties, including the 450-acre Grandis Pond development in east Blaine. Still excited about his work, he detailed the plans for the development with enthusiasm. “It’s the most beautiful land,” he said. “It has great views of the Cascades and two miles of border frontage. It’ll be wonderful when it’s done.” 

The 1,000-unit residential development, which will support both single and multi-family homes and 48,000 square feet of commercial space, adheres to Hertz’s aesthetic bent. “There are 27 miles of trail planned in that development,” he said. 

“They wanted to build it around a golf course, but I said no.” More than 200 acres will remain as open space, Hertz said. 

Plans to begin actual construction will remain on hold until the city of Blaine determines sewer access for the property. “We’ve done everything we were asked to do plus more, but we have to wait.” 

He hopes to see Grandis Pond get off the ground soon. “East Blaine is really the answer to city growth,” he said. “It’s the best option.” 

Also in the offing is a project that would create a 27,000 square foot Health Professions Center for nursing and physical therapy students at Whatcom Community College. He is also stepping outside his “sandbox” to work with a sustainable salmon operation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. in Monterey Bay, California. 

With such a varied background and portfolio of projects, it’s hard for Hertz to imagine what could be next, except to manage his assets and spend time with his grandchildren. “I’ve handled a multiplicity of projects,” he said. “I don’t know what else I could do.”