Remodels, new companies top Whatcom County business stories of 2013

TSA officers screen passengers in the new TSA area at the Bellingham International Airport Tuesday, March 12, 2013.
TSA officers screen passengers in the new TSA area at the Bellingham International Airport Tuesday, March 12, 2013. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Business remodels and new companies entering Whatcom County were the themes of 2013, a sign that the local economy continues to get back on track.

This year's top business stories are much different from a few years ago, when bank shutdowns, company closures and worker layoffs dominated the local news. In 2013, it was mostly a steady stream of news related to economic growth.

Whatcom County did experience its share of contraction, including the announced closures of longtime businesses such as Sportsman Chalet and GB Heron. Through the third quarter, however, my count has Whatcom County brick-and-mortar openings outpacing closings by almost 3 to 1.

The business trend that made the list of top overall Whatcom County news stories was the changes in the Bellingham grocery store industry. WinCo moved into Bellingham, while three stores - Sunset Cost Cutter, Meridian Cost Cutter and the Market at Lakeway - announced closures. Even more changes are expected in 2014, with Safeway and Costco making plans for new stores.

Here's a list of other top local business stories in 2013, in no particular order:

Hotel construction gets rolling in Bellingham

The northern part of Bellingham has attracted hotels in a big way.

Marriott opened the 122-unit SpringHill Suites earlier this year. It also recently submitted permits to build an 83-unit TownePlace Suites, which will be next to SpringHill Suites on Northwest Avenue and offer an extended-stay format.

LaQuinta is finishing construction on an 81-room hotel on West Bakerview Road.

Three other hotel chains announced plans for that area in 2014: Oxford Hotel Group is building a 99-room hotel near Pier 1 Imports on Meridian Street; Hilton has submitted building permits for a 106-room extended-stay hotel near SpringHill Suites, and Holiday Inn is expected to begin construction next spring on a 150-room hotel near Bellingham International Airport.

Airport expansion means plenty of changes

The Bellingham International Airport took significant steps in its multi-phased $38-million expansion this year, with the addition of a carousel baggage area, larger screening and security areas, as well as new spaces dedicated to restaurants in the secured gate area.

The project is expected to be complete at the end of January, said Dan Zenk, aviation director for the Port of Bellingham.

Darigold invests $22 million in Lynden plant

Darigold showed off its investment to the community in April that should significantly improve the efficiency and safety of the milk-processing plant.

The new 143-foot milk powder dryer replaces equipment damaged by a fire in February 2012.

The new dryer is expected to produce 46 percent more milk powder annually than the previous dryer. It also will provide a significant new opportunity for the company: The plant now makes whole-milk powder, which previously it had been unable to do.

Semiahmoo reopens

The Blaine community received an economic boost when the Semiahmoo Resort reopened in mid-August under new ownership. The 213-room hotel had closed in December 2012.

Along with the hotel, Packers restaurant and the hotel spa also reopened. In 2014, owners plan to give the resort a major remodel.

Bellis Fair gets a makeover

The multimillion-dollar remodel included work done inside and outside the mall. Perhaps most noticeable to customers was the food court area, which received a fireplace and colors meant to create a Pacific Northwest look. Sports Authority also opened, filling an anchor gap left by Sears.

Big changes are expected to continue in 2014, as the mall owner has submitted plans to close the movie theater and convert it into retail space. Bellis Fair is also planning to announce several new tenants.

Key downtown Lynden buildings to be revamped

New owners at the Dutch Village Mall and Delft Square have created some hope that downtown Lynden will be revitalized in the coming year.

The new operators of the Dutch Village Mall plan to get to work refurbishing the property and filling some empty spaces. The building, known for its 72-foot windmill, is also home to the Dutch Village Inn, which will be remodeled and expanded.

The Delft project at 444 Front St. is in the design phase, with the owners hoping to get started on construction next spring and have the building ready in early 2015. The plan is to redevelop that historic building into a 25-room inn with about 10,000 square feet of retail space.

Silver Reef has $29 million expansion

The Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa continued to grow, adding a 10,000-square-foot event center, business conference rooms, more slots and a Mexican restaurant called The Cantina last May.

Apartment boom in Bellingham

With the Bellingham apartment vacancy rate under 2 percent throughout much of 2013, developers embarked on a variety of apartment projects.

More than 450 new units were either in permitting or under construction in 2013. The projects are spread throughout the city, including downtown, near Western Washington, the Barkley District and in north Bellingham.

Real estate sales strong

Whatcom County took significant steps in rebounding from the real estate collapse a few years ago, with real estate agents posting strong sales numbers throughout most of the year.

According to Northwest Multiple Listing Service data collected by Lylene Johnson of The Muljat Group, 1,817 Whatcom County homes were sold through the first three quarters of 2013, an 18.1 percent increase compared to the same period in 2012.