Bright lights, local flavor: Downtown Bellingham grows more vibrant

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 26, 2013 

Neighborhood vibrancy can be hard to define; it's one of those concepts that you know when you see it.

In downtown Bellingham, vibrancy has returned in a big way after the district spent years finding itself.

Plenty of hand-wringing has taken place the past 25 years about what to do with downtown, particularly after the exodus of several large retailers when Bellis Fair mall opened in 1988. City government has made improvements over the years, including fixing sidewalks and planting trees, but it appears that organic growth of businesses and residences is turning the area into an attractive district for people to live, eat and shop.

For Scot Casey, co-owner of The Black Drop Coffee House, downtown's unique character is what makes it vibrant again.

"On my corner of Champion and Grand, I can look out and see lots of different walks of life," he says. "I see this as a beautiful place."

One way Casey gauges that vibrant character is looking at the posters on Black Drop's event wall. The wall was full at the end of June.

The Black Drop, itself, has a hand in creating or hosting some of the events, including a zombies versus survivors water balloon battle earlier this summer, and Monday night poetry readings.

"It's at the point where something is happening every night," Casey says.

Evenings in downtown Bellingham have undergone significant change in recent years, too. Along with an increase in regular family-friendly events, such as the monthly Art Walk, the district is home to a steady stream of performances at Mount Baker Theatre and The Upfront Theatre. There's also two movie theaters downtown, and more retail businesses, not just bars, staying open later.

All of that activity requires adjustments for longtime residents who remember the once-sleepy downtown. When going to a restaurant on a weekend night, for example, people have learned they probably will have to wait for a seat at popular eateries.

SWEET SPOTS

Andi Vann opened Pure Bliss Desserts in October 2010 with the idea of having an evening place residents could go to after dinner, whether to catch up with friends after a theater show or to enjoy an after-dinner family treat. She felt there was a demand for an alternative to the bar scene that has been a familiar part of Bellingham's night life.

"It was a no-brainer to be open late, but the challenge was getting known," Vann says, adding that customers were a big part of that success. "When people find something they like, they tell others."

Still, it was a roll of the dice when Pure Bliss opened three years ago. At the time, businesses along Cornwall Avenue were opening and quickly closing.

Despite that, Vann says the liveliness of Cornwall has increased steadily. Having Chocolate Necessities as a neighbor has also been a factor in Pure Bliss' success, despite being a competitor.

The area is now known as the "sweet spot" for downtown at night. Along with Mallard's Ice Cream, a block away on Railroad Avenue, downtown visitors know where to stroll to work off that full feeling from dinner and to make room for dessert. It's also a way to enjoy the evening longer.

While Vann would love to see more eateries and maybe a pedestrian-only street, she's impressed by what she finds when she explores downtown herself.

"Downtown has so many amazing places to visit," she says. "When people visit me, I think it's great that we have more places than time to visit them all."

Problems such as drugs and homelessness remain visible downtown, and that threatens to hurt the newfound vibrancy. As a downtown business owner, Casey doesn't want those problems to get out of control so businesses and residents feel threatened, but he also doesn't want downtown sanitized to the point that the problems are pushed to some other part of town.

"I don't want this element to be seen as an overblown fear, to be pushed into a place where we don't have to look at it," says Casey, adding that it's a part of downtown's character.

RESIDENCES FOSTER NEIGHBORHOOD

A change that appears to be making a difference is that so many more people live downtown than a few years ago. A variety of multifamily buildings have been built in recent years, adding several hundred new housing units, particularly on North State Street and Railroad Avenue.

Currently, two apartment buildings with a total of 120 units are under construction near Depot Market Square.

With the influx of new residents, Casey gets the sense that they want to make downtown their own.

"When I first got here, the downtown was empty from the big box stores moving out," he says. "What that did was open up the possibility for what we have now."

Along with new residents, downtown has seen an influx of new employers.

According to the 2013 Whatcom County Real Estate Research Report, downtown had 802 employers with a workforce of 7,383 people as of June 1. Estimated annual sales from those businesses total about $2.4 billion.

One of those downtown businesses that has grown notably is Logos Bible Software. Having moved into Bellingham in 2002 with 30 employees, the company expanded to more than 320 employees in three buildings by the end of 2012, including the historic Flatiron Building at Prospect and Bay streets.

Other businesses have been filling up spaces. According to the research report, downtown has 1.4 million square feet of office space with a vacancy rate of 6.8 percent in June 2013. That rate is down from 10.5 percent in 2010.

Downtown's 1.5 million square feet of retail space has a higher vacancy rate; at 9 percent in June.

Casey says more proof of downtown's vibrancy can be seen in its unique local businesses. It's a testament to downtown, he says, that a business that sells only socks (ModSock, on Cornwall Avenue) can survive in a city this size. ModSock recently began a campaign to start manufacturing its own socks.

"What I see is a lot of businesses doing things with passion," Casey says.

It's the kind of passion that residents will support, even when a business gets into financial trouble. Last year, Stephen Trinkaus appealed to the public after making bad decisions that left his business, Terra Organica, strapped for cash.

The community responded by coming into the store at Bellingham Public Market on Cornwall Avenue ready to spend: The store experienced double-digit growth for several months. That helped Trinkaus solve his financial problems and prevented the business from closing.

Local flavor also shows in events that happen during the day. Bellingham Farmers Market continues to grow, making Saturdays a busy time through most of the year now, rather than just the summer.

Annual downtown events remain popular, including Bite of Bellingham in August, Downtown Sounds during the summer, and kids' trick-or-treating of downtown merchants for Halloween.

"It's been a slow growth to get to this point," Casey says, "but when I see something unique like a business like Merch Bot, or places packed during the Art Walk with people that are laughing and enjoying themselves ... it tells me that I live in a dynamic city."

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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