City has new tool for economic development

Published on Wed, Oct 16, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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With the books finally closed on Hebert Research company’s six-month analysis of Blaine’s assets, the city is ready to look at begin a new chapter in its economic development story. 

The 25-page feasibility study, conducted and compiled by Hebert Research of Bellevue, offers an overview of reasons why the city of Blaine is a good potential site for commercial and industrial development, and lauds the city’s foresight in the creation and maintenance of infrastructure as well as its unique location as “an area prime for significant investment.” 

Though at first glance the report seems overly simplified, heralding such facts as the city’s location near a major interstate corridor with easy access to major metropolitan areas as key selling points, Blaine city manager Dave Wilbrecht was quick to point out the importance of having that sort of “at-a-glance” information in one centralized resource. “We know there’s a port and the I-5 corridor, but this report quantifies it and allows us to match up what we have to offer here as a city with what a business might need. It puts all that information in one place and backs it up with pretty good data behind it,” Wilbrecht said. “We know a lot of these things because we are right here and we see it every day,” adding that it would be a key component in their toolbox as they begin to court potential businesses at the city gates.

CEO James Hebert said that it’s just those kind of details that are a draw for companies looking to relocate their manufacturing facilities. 

“If you were to go to God and say give me a place to put a manufacturing facility, this might be the place,” said Hebert in his presentation to council. “One of the biggest challenges in manufacturing is the ability to have a workforce. You have two economic engines at work in this area, one to the north in Vancouver, and one to the south in Seattle. There’s people to pull from, and you can offer a livable wage in this area that would be hard to match in the larger metropolitan areas. There’s also a strong education system here, which is another factor companies who want to relocate look at.”

The data gathered in the report is based on an analysis of other border cities in North America and Nordic countries along with personal interviews, surveys and an economic impact analysis modeling system, and highlights what kind of businesses might want to set up shop in Blaine.

“It’s a platform for us to start targeting industries and businesses that the city wants to attract,” Wilbrecht said. “Clark Cotner will be taking it to the economic development group and we can begin talking about what the next steps are and how to best approach bringing businesses into Blaine.” 

Industries that were specifically highlighted as potential candidates were a medical campus that would cater to Canadians in search of hard-to-procure elective surgeries and advanced technology manufacturing companies, such as those implementing 3D printing technology and robotics. “It’s just amazing what’s happening in those industries,” Hebert said. 

Hebert said one of the most effective ways that Blaine could utilize the information was looking into public-private partnerships with developers. 

“We don’t want this to be something that sits on the shelf,” Hebert said. “It’s something that can be implemented. I’d like to see developers doing what developers do best – coming in with their dollars and prospecting tents and getting to work.” Hebert said that he felt the private sector worked best when it has to provide its own financing and marketing for the projects while the city provides the rules and criteria of what needs to be done. “It’s your job to hold it to a certain standard,” he said. 

Drawing comparisons to the potential of having something like the BMW manufacturing plant in Moses Lake caused council member Paul Greenough to balk, however. “I’ve been to Moses Lake in the past month and drove out to the plant that is located north of the city where the land is cheap, and they have 10 to 15 big electrical generators and those guys are noisy. I could see problems with bringing these kind of manufacturers to town.” 

Hebert replied that it would be important to define the city’s goals before moving forward in the process to circumvent those kinds of issues. “You have to define who you are as a city and then rely on your zoning structure,” he said. “If you look at other communities that have successfully integrated advanced manufacturing into them, you won’t even know they are there. It doesn’t have to be something as large as parts for airplanes and cars. You can find something that works with your community.” 

The report, presented by James Hebert at the October 14 regular city council meeting was unanimously accepted by council members with a 7–0 vote.

Funding for the $30,000 study came in equal parts from the Port of Bellingham and Blaine’s Rural Economic Development Revolving Fund (a city fund started in 1999 that is paid for by a contribution from the city of Blaine Electric Utility and a public utility tax credit).

At the same meeting, the council revisited the idea of the planning commission which presented a proposal that would have established a minimum density level for future residential developments in the city. The amendment was designed to help prevent urban sprawl and facilitate organized growth within the city limits over the coming years. The proposal died on the table at the September 9 meeting when it did not gain enough votes to pass.

As written, the ordinance would set a minimum of four dwelling units per acre in any area not tied to a master plan. To effect that, the zoning for the Semiahmoo uplands would also have to change to increase the maximum density level for the area.

Council member Paul Greenough made a motion to pass the proposal with the modification that the rezoning of the Semiahmoo residential planned recreation zones be omitted from the decision.

“You can leave that out,” Jones said. “But we will probably bring it back to you in the future.”

Greenough’s motion passed with a 7–0 vote.