Report focus of new economic development push in Blaine

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 11, 2013 

Blaine development

Carol Choulochas, of Birch Bay, looks inside Looks inside Merry-Go-Round Consignment & Home Decor, Nov. 11, 2013 on Peace Portal Drive in Blaine.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BLAINE - Manufacturing, trucking and a medical center catering to Canadians are among the industries that Blaine leaders hope to attract to the city, according to a new report.

Written by consultant Jim Hebert of Hebert Research Inc. of Bellevue, the report is part of an effort to reach out to potential developers, real estate brokers and other business interests.

The goal is to spark economic development and entice hundreds of thousands of Canadian drivers crossing the U.S.-Canada border to spend more time than it takes to fill up their gas tanks or pick up their order from Amazon.com in the border town, which is grappling with empty storefronts downtown.

More than 1.1 million people crossed into Blaine from Canada during peak travel time in August, according to data collected by Western Washington University's Center for Economics and Business Research.

"They come through Blaine. They don't stop at Blaine. We need something," said Blaine City Councilman Clark Cotner.

Cotner is head of the city's Economic Development Advisory Committee, whose members will meet in the coming months to launch an organized effort to promote Blaine's strengths to potential business interests, including Canadians seeking access to the larger U.S. market and lower taxes.

"The whole idea is to tell our story," said Mike Kent of Windermere Real Estate, a resident in nearby Birch Bay who also is on the committee. "Blaine needs an economic shot in the arm."

The report refers to nearly 431 acres of land in Blaine that are available for commercial and manufacturing purposes, including the former Blaine airport.

Owned by the city, the 34-acre property known as Gateway Business Park has been up for sale since 2008.

Economic development is a priority for Blaine, and developing that property is a main part of that discussion, said Dave Wilbrecht, Blaine's new city manager.

Hebert's report delves into Blaine's strengths, including available land; status as a major Canada-U.S. border crossing; proximity to two major metropolitan areas, Vancouver, B.C., just over the northern border, and Seattle to the south; being served by the 1,300-mile Interstate 5 corridor; electricity rates 40 percent cheaper than Puget Sound Energy's; the city's infrastructure; and the education system.

Targeted industries include advanced manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, trucking and transportation services, as well as medical devices.

The report, and some committee members, also touched on the idea of developing a medical center in Blaine to attract Canadians with the will - and the money - to travel to the U.S. for medical procedures because of the wait time in the government-funded health care system in their country.

An estimated 42,173 Canadians received treatment outside Canada in 2012, according to a report by the Fraser Institute. About 8,100 of those came from British Columbia, although the institute report didn't track where Canadians went to receive medical care that included urology, ophthalmology and internal medicine.

Blaine leaders are looking to the work that's been done in Buffalo, N.Y., where a private-public partnership involving health-care providers has turned 120 acres in the city's slumping downtown into a center for medical care, research and education.

About 12,000 people are employed at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and its presence has in turn spurred construction of new retail and hotel space in the northern border town, according to an article in The New York Times.

It has drawn Canadian patients, according to a representative for the medical campus.

The Hebert report cost $30,000, split evenly between Blaine and the Port of Bellingham, which has holdings in Blaine that include Blaine Harbor. Wilbrecht also sees the report as providing a regional approach to economic development.

Reach KIE RELYEA at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2234.

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