M A Landis goes to Washington… Bellingham that is

Ukiah City Council

People figured I’d been to Indonesia, when I mentioned I’d been to the BALLE conference recently. It wasn’t BALI; it was the BALLE conference in Bellingham, Washington – The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.

Bali was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen when I was there 25 years ago, but traveling to Bellingham re-opened my eyes to how beautiful OUR home in the Pacific Northwest is…

All along the route, from the clear aerial view leaving Santa Rosa, then flying past Lassen, Shasta and St Helens, to landing in the creative clutch of Seattle, where even the lampposts in Pioneer Square are covered with art, is like nowhere else. Striped hand-knit sleeves wander up all things vertical making this urban park a wacky Dr Seuss tableau. I departed from the grand, somewhat rehabbed King Street Station, on a pretty darn comfortable Amtrak train with the sunset view of the Pacific Coast for the 3 hours north to Bellingham. Soothing, yet majestic.

Bellingham, aka the hippie retirement community for California, is as inviting a location for a conference, Place Matters, on preserving the special places our hometowns are! Coastal breezes, island vistas from the bay shore, great trails along the coast from the neighboring former town of Fairhaven, for walking, biking, running, baby carriages to get to town, or just to explore the towns heading south. For this town of 80,000, the town’s amenities are clearly being planned for accessibility, recreation, and natural beauty. A lovely example of a smaller town that is being re-born as a sustainable local economy.

Successive waves of commerce, from seaport, to gold rush boom, to lumber mill town supplying the rebuild after SF’s fire of 1906, to coal that faded in the 1950’s or 60’s… all focused on Bellingham’s natural resources and its strategic location with 3 trains and a very approachable bay. But none of these economic tides has had staying power. There is some rattling going on about reactivating the coal extraction and using the rails in Bellingham to ship to port, then ship the coal to China. Needless to say, an extremely controversial topic among everyone I spoke to.

Changing economic conditions and changing markets contribute to the ebb and flow of industries in any geographic area. In the face of this uncertainty and sense of being at the mercy of things not in our control, our four days at the BALLE conference was about developing lasting solutions. The focus was on what we, as individuals who love where we live, can do to encourage economic development that is sustainable and in sync with the resources native to our region. Invigorated young and older people sought a new view of economic development in local context. What a great place to think new thoughts, breathe and have fun!

What I came away with for us here in the Ukiah Valley in a nutshell:

• There does exist successful legal and financial mechanisms to spur investment in our local economy. And intriguing examples of just that ARE out there.

• Gathering specific data about food distribution can strengthen our economy by making connections between local farmers and local purchasers of food.

• People who have succeeded in their own businesses are excellent mentors for emerging entrepreneurs.

• Sustainable business models DO exist that create profit, are a net positive for the planet, and support the people who work there. I visited 3 such sustainable industries outside Bellingham.

Stay tuned for more in an upcoming blog post.

One Comment

Perhaps a different picture: I live in Bellingham from the early sixties for nearly twenty-five years; Marlene not quite so long, but long enough. My sister-in-law and her husband, long time residents, still live there, so we visit now and then. We watched it change from 30,000 or so twenty years ago as the California exodus began in earnest. The only reason it isn’t much larger are city boundary constraints. The surrounding country roads which still were uncluttered when we left are now lined with business parks, shopping centers, and housing developments remindful so much of California’s worst, and the then wild hillsides are now widely settled by yuppie, not hippie, California escapees. The downtown is mostly comatose, but then it always was. Sound familiar? True, a quite fine volunteer-constructed urban trail system winds around the hills. It has an efficient bus system. Fairhaven on the south is a quite entertaining yuppie neighborhood that was redeveloped following the arrival of the Alaskan Ferry dock. And, many of the shopping amenities that Californian love so well have followed them, mostly shipped in. As far as fresh local foods are concerned, Bellingham never had a great climate, which is one of the reasons we left. Now, the weather that left us no spring has lingered well into the Bellingham summer and successful gardens are nearly nonexistent; however, the drought and shortage of water that was plaguing them may have be alleviated. We may hope that Bellingham is not Ukiah’s foreseeable future. I do agree that the community must focus its resources on local businesses, not CostCo and other big boxes, which I hope Landis is taking to heart.