Don Alper has a long-standing interest in how the U.S.-Canada border operates, and that passion has helped put Bellingham in a pivotal position for the future.
Alper, who helped start the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University 10 years ago, is retiring at the end of the year after teaching on campus for 42 years. Along with running the institute, Alper was director of Western’s Center for Canadian-American Studies and a political science professor.
The institute started in 2004 and over the years has helped advance several policy initiatives that are meant to improve the function of the border, particularly its impact on transportation. The institute came into existence at a crucial time, as government officials tried to balance the need for tighter security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the importance of a free-flowing border for commerce and travelers.
Alper and the institute were crucial in helping improve the traffic flow at the border, said Greg Boos, an immigration attorney based in Fairhaven who is on the institute’s advisory board. He noted that the research done by the institute helped refine the NEXUS program as well as improve traffic flow for trucks.
“They are kind of an unsung treasure,” Boos said of the research institute.
Alper said the intense increase in border security following the 2001 terrorist attacks came as a surprise to him. Before the attacks, it seemed emerging technology would lead to a more free-flowing border. He thought security would ramp up for a while but didn’t expect it to remain in place at this level.
Increased security “is the fabric of American policy now,” said Alper, who believes the ability to get trade across the the border should be equal to security in terms of priority.
The border institute is well-respected but tends to keep a low public profile, said Jim Pettinger, president of International Market Access in Ferndale and also a member of the institute’s advisory board. His business offers a variety of cross-border services to help companies with sales and distribution.
In some ways the institute is reflective of its director. Pettinger said Alper has a quiet demeanor but is very good at getting things done.
“Very quietly, he has earned tons of respect on both sides of the border,” Pettinger said.
Alper didn’t have a particular interest in the border early on in his career, but after getting his doctorate at the University of British Columbia and joining the staff at Western Washington University in the early 1970s he became fascinated by its impact on a region. Bellingham’s place between two large metro areas also has created some interesting economic dynamics, including the cross-border shopping phenomenon.
“It’s interesting to me how Bellingham occupies this pivotal position,” Alper said.
The past few years probably have been the most intense for cross-border shopping that Alper has seen in Whatcom County, but he added that the late 1980s, when Bellis Fair was built and the loonie was around par with the U.S. dollar, also had an impact on local residents.
“It seems to be different now,” Alper said, pointing out that the exchange rate doesn’t have much effect on whether Canadian shoppers will come to Whatcom County.
One thing has perplexed Alper — the lack of spillover at the border in terms of business. Millions of people live just north of Whatcom County, yet relatively few Canadian companies have set up operations in the north part of the county or Bellingham. It’s the same when it comes to culture and politics.
“It shows that borders really do matter,” Alper said.
After retiring, Alper said he plans to remain active in border issues, as well as do more community volunteer work and possibly write a book.
With Alper retiring, David Davidson will take over as interim director at the institute, while Laurie Trautman is the associate director. Davidson said it will continue to do evidence-based research and get it into the hands of policy makers in both nations.
“We sometimes joke that we are better known in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., than on the Western campus,” Davidson said. “We’ll keep striving to produce research aimed at improving border-management policies.”
After years of working on the basic mobility of goods and people in the years following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the institute’s focus has shifted to narrower issues, Davidson said. This includes mobility for business-related travelers and cooperative governance of natural resources such as the Salish Sea.
David Rossiter was recently named the new director of Western’s Center for Canadian-American Studies.