A longtime grocery store in the Birchwood neighborhood will be closing in May.
The Albertsons store at 1650 Birchwood Ave. is scheduled to close on Saturday, May 7, said Sara Osborne, a spokeswoman for the company. Albertsons has worked out an agreement with the union UFCW 21 to move the store’s 66 employees to Safeway stores in the area and keep their seniority, said Tom Geiger, communications for the union.
Albertsons has two Safeway stores in Whatcom County that it acquired last year.
Albertsons has been a fixture in the neighborhood, and news of the closure came as a surprise to Mike Bakko, president of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association who has lived in the area for 22 years. According to newspaper archives, the store opened in that spot in 1960.
“It seemed relatively busy,” said Bakko, who has been a regular shopper at the store.
Many regular customers who walk to the store from nearby residential areas will be hard hit by this closure, Bakko said. The next closest major grocery stores are the Haggen on Meridian Street, Fred Meyer on Bakerview Ave., and Target at Bellis Fair mall. All of them are more than a mile away from Albertsons.
Many of (the employees) have been there for a long time and are now facing a major life change.
Mike Bakko, president of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association
Bellingham City Councilwoman April Barker, who represents the Birchwood neighborhood, also expressed concern about the area losing a grocery store. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables becomes harder if residents without cars have to go to other parts of town to find them. Daily shopping trips become weekly trips, which tends to prompt people to shop for more processed foods, she said.
The announcement apparently came as a surprise to many of the store’s employees. Ashlee Bock said her dad, Rod Bock, found out the store was closing by seeing a note on the employee posting board. She said Rod Bock worked at the Sunset Cost Cutter store for 36 years before that store closed and has been at the Albertsons Birchwood store for the past two years. She said her dad is stressed about not knowing what’s next or whether he will find another grocery job within the company or elsewhere.
“It’s his livelihood and he’s worried because he doesn’t have a lot of seniority (at Albertsons),” Bock said.
Bakko said he and other members of the neighborhood association are saddened by what the employees are going through.
“Many of them have been there for a long time and are now facing a major life change,” said Bakko, adding that it is a blow to the neighborhood because of the union wage jobs that will be lost.
66 number of employees at the Bellingham Albertsons store
The announced closure of Albertsons comes as the neighborhood association is actively looking for ways to improve the area. The association has been talking to students at Western Washington University’s Urban Transitions Studio, which has put together a series of presentations about what the future could look like for the neighborhood core. The final presentation is scheduled to take place 6-8 p.m. March 15 at Northwood Hall at 3240 Northwest Ave.
While pleased with the staff at the store over the years, Bakko said the company never seemed to make the store as high a priority as it could have, saying any remodels seemed to be more Band-Aid solutions. He added that he’s yearned for a store with more appeal for that spot.
“It feels like an opportunity is there,” Bakko said.
Barker said if she were making a pitch to a future grocer for that spot, she would let them know the store would have a captive audience if they created a nice area that feels safe. From a city standpoint, work like the WWU presentation and discussions among the business owners, residents, police and city planning can create an area that is more appealing to residents while driving out some of the criminal elements that exist.
“This neighborhood can be extremely supportive,” Barker said.
The Albertsons closure is part of the rapidly changing Bellingham grocery industry. Haggen, which is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, is scheduled to auction off its more than 30 core stores on Friday, March 11. There’s speculation on social media about whether the Birchwood store closure is related to some plan by Albertsons to get involved in the upcoming auction. When asked about Haggen by email, Osborne did not address the question.