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Prosperity, growth marked this decade in Whatcom County

For many people, the decade from 2000 through 2009 brought a transformation of Bellingham and Whatcom County, leaving this community feeling less like an overgrown small town and more like a small city.

"There are a lot more new people in town," said Taimi Gorman, Fairhaven businesswoman. "I can go places and not know anybody."

Countywide, population rose by 26,274 people during the decade, according to state estimates, topping off at 193,100.

Bellingham's population rose from 67,171 in 2000 to 76,130 for 2009.

A grim global economy cast its pall over Whatcom County at decade's end, and that might explain a slowdown in the rate of population growth. From 2006 to 2007, for example, the county's population rose by 4,000 people. From 2008 to 2009, the increase was a little over 2,000.

Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he was encouraged to see city, county and state governments taking real steps to protect the county's most important water source - Lake Whatcom - from the consequences of that growth, although much more remains to be done.

The past 10 years saw the rise of many monuments to the economic boom that preceded - and perhaps helped create - today's malaise.

In Bellingham, the prosperity and resulting rise in tax revenues helped develop Depot Market Square, providing shelter and substance to the local farmers' market. In late 2009, the city unveiled a new Whatcom Museum, meant to be a sophisticated new venue for art exhibits, including the traveling displays that bypassed the city for lack of such a space in the past.

"The art museum is a wonderful addition to the city," said Bob Goodwin, a locally based television and movie producer who worked on fundraising and planning for the museum. "If somebody closed your eyes and transported you there, you wouldn't know where you were. You could be in New York."

The private sector changed the downtown landscape even more. A once-desolate intersection - Holly Street and Railroad Avenue - became a focal point as three new buildings came to life, with ground-floor shops and residences above. Other residential buildings rose on long-vacant land south of Maple Street.

Gorman said the added downtown residents have given city streets a busier, safer feeling.

To the south, the transformation of Fairhaven was even more dramatic.

"Fairhaven went through a big growth boom that was difficult for lots of people," Gorman said. "It was this big boom where all these buildings were going up constantly. Then it suddenly stopped. There's a whole new group of people living in Fairhaven."

Jim Darling, who stepped down as the Port of Bellingham's executive director in 2009, noted a similar revitalization of Blaine, with residential and commercial construction plus growth in border-related industry.

Ferndale, Lynden and Birch Bay also saw some dramatic changes during the building boom, said Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The 2001 terror attacks affected all Americans, but border communities faced special challenges, Oplinger added. People on both sides of the border became more reluctant to make casual trips across the line, fearful of delays caused by more rigorous inspections. Some of the problems may have been more imagined than real, but border document requirements did get tougher during the decade.

On a more encouraging note, Darling and others remarked on the steady growth in higher education institutions, providing new opportunities for local residents to seek enlightenment, training or retraining. The growth may have been most visible at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College, where major new buildings were completed, but Bellingham Technical College and Northwest Indian College also expanded their offerings.

Northwest Indian College added a student dormitory and classroom building as it made the transition to a four-year school, handing out the first bachelors' degrees in its history.

As always, the decade's prosperity was not evenly distributed.

Chuck Eberdt, who heads the Energy Project at the Opportunity Council, said the decade-long increase in utility costs have put a tight squeeze on lower-income households.

"We are seeing much higher numbers seeking assistance than ever before," Eberdt said in an e-mail. But he added that his agency also has more money to help, and Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas are pursuing cost-effective energy conservation measures "at a pace they didn't even imagine in 1999."

Times also have been tough for many farmers. In some parts of the county, residential development came at the expense of agricultural acreage. Conditions have been especially rough for small family dairy farms that formed the foundation of Whatcom County's rural economy for decades.

In 2000, the county had 220 dairy operations, in itself a steep drop from the 381 that had been in business 10 years before that. But the downward trend continued. Today, there are just 120 dairy operators, according to statistics provided by Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends. Bierlink also noted that the drop in the number of cows, and in overall milk production, has been far less dramatic, as surviving dairy operations get bigger.

Farmer Darryl Ehlers said he started out in the 1940s with a broken-down barn and eight cows. Today, Ehlers said, a young family starting a farm would need a much bigger operation and a lot more money to enter the business.

Berry production, the county's other farming mainstay, has been fairly solid, although the ups and downs of world markets can trap the unwary. Ehlers, 77, figures he's grown just about everything since he started out, but today he focuses on blueberries and raspberries exclusively.

He believes that growers planted too many blueberries during the recent run-up in price, which he termed a "bubble." Now the price is down to a fraction of the peak price, and he predicted that some growers may not survive the slump.

Despite those kinds of market-driven problems, so typical of agricultural commodities, Bierlink believes agriculture remains strong.

"Ag has its ups and downs but looking back on the past decade we'd have to say that we are holding our own in value and production," he said in an e-mail. "We look forward to more stability and to continue improving our sales values and our contribution to the community through our management of the valuable natural resources provided us here in Whatcom County."

Ehlers, for one, isn't ready to throw in the towel. He said he scoffed when his son asked him if he planned to retire soon.

"I'm going to farm until I'm 100 years old," Ehlers told his son. "Then I'm going to sit back and tell you everything you're doing wrong."

Once the economy moves out of the doldrums, the decade ahead is likely to be just as dramatic and transformative as the last one, said Darling, the port's former director.

While the lack of tangible progress on the Bellingham waterfront has been disappointing, Darling believes that the strengthening partnership between port, city, state and university will bear fruit in the next 10 years.

Goodwin, the TV producer, agrees. As he sees it, Bellingham and Whatcom County are just beginning to realize their potential.

"This community could be one of the greatest communities in the country," he said.

He acknowledged that many, even most county residents like things as they are. But as he sees it, change is inevitable. The challenge is to channel that change in ways that improve the community.

"Those who want to stop change have stood there with the changes whizzing right past them," Goodwin said. "It's not the same place it was 10 years ago."