Let’s start with who are you and what do you do?
My name’s Tara—I’m a mom, a wife and I work for the City of Bellingham as the Community and Economic Development Manager.
There are a number of economic development practitioners in the city of Bellingham. What’s your specific area of focus or interest?
I think it’s helpful to identify the city’s role in economic development. We provide adequate places for people to conduct, grow, and locate businesses. We do that through good planning.
We also provide infrastructure necessary to conduct business—roads, water, and sewer—this is certainly one of our core roles. Under the Mayor’s leadership, we create a positive business environment. As an example, we do this by supporting businesses when they need to expand or want to locate here. I help them with our process internally as well as connect them with other resources in our community.
While the City Center is a high priority for our division, all business is a priority for us. We don’t pick sectors to focus on. We consider our City Center to be Downtown, Old Town, and the Waterfront District. We also help manage the City’s role in redeveloping the Waterfront District.
Oh, just that little thing?
But really it is such an exciting time for the waterfront. As somebody who has been involved in planning the waterfront I’m excited that we are finally in the implementing stage. Next year is going to be an incredible year for the waterfront.
Is that next year as in 2017?
New signs and new things to go see and do along the waterfront?
Yep. You have probably seen that the Granary building is under construction.
What’s going in there?
Well the developer hasn’t announced the tenants yet. They haven’t signed any leases as far as I’m aware, but their vision is to have a very active marketplace-type feel on the ground floor. I would not be surprised if a brewery locates there, some eateries, a cafe. Then the upper stories will be two floors of offices and the tower will be converted into an office tower.
The views won’t be so bad.
I was in the building the other day and they are awesome.
And we will be constructing our first phase of public park along the waterfront. So our community will be able to get down to the water late next summer.
So what brought you to Bellingham?
Well that’s easy to answer. I was born here. I went to Western Washington University. I did not plan on staying here. I wasn’t sure that I would find a job in my field here but I did. So I have been here ever since and I love it.
What did you study at Western?
I have a background in Urban and Regional planning—though I have never really been on the planning side of this department. I have been in Community Development from the start.
What’s the best kept secret in Bellingham?
I don’t know if it is really a secret. It’s definitely not a secret to any of us living here. But it is a fabulous place to raise kids.
I still think downtown is one of our best kept secrets. It is not as much of a secret as it has been over the last couple of decades. But I still think it is to the larger community and regionally. We are working to change that.
You were involved in the Choose Whatcom Project. What’s your hope for that project in the future and what it will accomplish?
We hope the website will allow businesses to access the amazing amount of resources we have in Whatcom County more easily. We have so many resources for a community of our size. We want to promote ourselves more than we have done. Bellingham and Whatcom County aren’t always proactive in saying how awesome we are.
Right, our excitement is very subdued.
Yes. I would love to get away from that “subdued” term.
You’re not the only one. Lots of people tell me that.
And I grew up here. I don’t think Bellingham is as subdued as it used to be. I don’t care for the term. Let’s rebrand ourselves.
I think that the Choose Whatcom Project website is a good first step. We highlight businesses on the website. Whatcom has a very diverse economy. We try to highlight a few different sectors.
There are some sectors that are prioritized on that site but certainly Bellingham is open to lots and lots of different businesses and sectors. Team Whatcom is also highlighted and represents the resources available to assist businesses such as the Small Business Center or the Port of Bellingham or the Chamber. The Technology Alliance Group does fabulous work for our tech sector.
What does Bellingham need? What is missing here?
Because of our proximity to the Canadian market, we have a lot of retail for the size of community we are. But retail doesn’t pay high wages. I think that Bellingham needs more higher wage jobs. I think we should be open to those that are making things like ITEK energy—they are making solar panels and are expanding here—in our waterfront district. Of course we love our breweries and our retail but I would love to see the technology sector grow.
If you have a free, sunny day in Bellingham where do you go?
I am also a gardener so I enjoy being in my yard.
My daughter plays soccer and we are soccer fans. In fact, she and I are going to see the Sounders play in Seattle this weekend.
Guy Occhiogrosso told me the other day that soccer tournaments create the busiest hotel stay weekends in Bellingham.
I have heard that too. Our hotel industry is pretty busy in the summer. Before the new hotels came online our hotels were at capacity during the summer.
What is the thing that people misunderstand most often about your job?
Well let’s talk about community development in general. I don’t know that the average person knows that we are here. In many ways our job is to improve the quality of life in Bellingham. We do that through a variety of projects and programs. The work ranges from low income housing development and human services to economic development and tourism to the arts. So I think that the diversity of the work might be misunderstood.
We partner with a lot of agencies. I don’t know if people realize that we are helping others contribute to making Bellingham an even better place. We partner with human service agencies like Lydia Place, housing developers like Bellingham Housing Authority and business groups like the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. We partner with tourism agencies—those soccer tournaments have received grants from us.
We might be a little quiet about the work that we do.
If a person wanted to go and learn more about what the city is doing in that arena particularly, the grant writing where would they go?
On the city’s website we have information on all of those programs.
What’s the new project you are most excited about?
Well one project at the front of my mind is accessing the waterfront next year. Our team, the parks team, and the public works team are working like crazy to get those projects designed and built next year. I am really excited about assisting the developer and getting the Granary building open next year. And, I’m really excited ITEK and All American Marine are expanding their businesses there.
Were you guys involved in the competition to bring a new event to Bellingham?
A signature event, yeah.
And it was a seafood festival, right?
Yes, September 30th.
Bellingham Seafeast. And it’s going to be held down in at Squalicum Harbor where the fishing boats are and all the way to Squalicum Park.
So starting where the big orca statue is?
Yeah, right in that area. There will be competitions like a salmon barbeque, tons food vendors, art, and industry tours. For example, Drew Schmidt who’s on our tourism commission and owns San Juan Cruises has stepped up along with Doug Thomas who runs Bellingham Cold Storage to do tours of cold storage. There will be tours of the fishing vessels so people will be able to learn more about the fishing industry. The whole idea is to connect Bellingham to this important industry that we have here.
Commercial fishing is such an underappreciated part of our local economy.
We are hoping people get to experience that part of our economy, learn a little more about it and connect with it. We wanted to take the event to the next level right out of the gates and that is why we are providing funding. It will take a few years to build it up but they have a goal to get 10,000 people to this event this year.
That’s not subdued.
We’re not doing subdued. [laughs]
How often do you get to visit comparable communities?
Training is really important to Rick Sepler who is the director of the Planning and Community Development department. In October we are heading to Portland For the APA—American Planning Association—conference and while that’s not a comparable sized city it has similar values. What I love about Bellingham is that we don’t really know care small we are. We always want to be the best and so we do look to those that are doing great things like Portland a lot.