Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Of Bellingham's Downtown, Public Spending, and Capitalism: Part I

Ten years ago my wife and I moved to Bellingham, WA for many typical "ex-urban" reasons: safer neighborhoods, less crowding, more park access, less traffic. I couldn't envision owning a home and raising children in an ever crowded and expensive Bay Area. Ultimately, the verdict on our decision to emigrate will always be mixed; debate over some decisions never quite leaves you.

I probably spend $40 or so dollars each week while I stroll my children or walk  downtown. Most of this is food, coffee, bread, bagels, etc.  Some significant additional amount goes to museum memberships, violin rentals, the farmer's market, evenings at Mt. Baker Theater or The Pickford (or The Limelight), eating lunch and  dinner out with friends and family at places like Avenue BreadBoundary Bay, Taco Lobo, Mt. Bakery, La Fiamma, The Table  etc. So figure $200 - $300 each month gets spent in downtown locations from our family. Multiply this by some few ten thousand families and you've got an economy that is truly sustainable and worth while. But when you travel downtown with your stroller early mornings in Bellingham, a parent still perceives many of the characteristics of small town urban decay that can be seen in too many of WA rural towns:

  • homelessness
  • vacant storefronts
  • all too quiet commercial district. 
  • a mix of some modern but mostly degrading older infrastructure

There is certainly activity and employment downtown as the day warms up: most of the restaurants and coffee shops bustle with visitors.  A number of firms and business work there. The lawyers and the courthouse always seem to be quite busy.  But with certain exceptions, there is a distinct lack of consulting, technical, and professional firms in downtown Bellingham.

So why are hours for our museum and library so constricted? Sure, my son and I can bide our early morning time in "The Black Drop" or hang out next to the "goat cart" next to market hall, or tool around a frigid library front lawn. But why aren't the museum and library open much earlier than 10:00 am?  Why is the Museum closed Monday and Tuesday? Why is the library closed entirely on Sunday? Why are there so few evening hours at all for the library? As I see it, public resources like the library and museum are among the only reasons that families with children visit downtown. To this extent, they are important economic drivers, creating the networking opportunities between parents that are necessary to form strong community relationships and social networks.   I really can't begin to explain how many people use our dilapidated library or how many parents use the children's library and children's museum each week.  The more available these facilities, the more families that meet downtown, the more income that flows through Bellingham's economy, the stronger the relationships between the one social unit that matters the most for any community: the family.

Think of public resources downtown as highways that bind the socio-economic relationships of a community. The better these resources are connected, the more they are available, the more stronger and more prosperous socio-economic relationships are created. Without transportation, commercial activity would be limited to your village. Without public meeting places and resources, local connections would be similarly muted. Such logic makes the librarians who run "Little Storytime" invaluable economic assets.  Too often, I think the business and political class who are responsible for shaping economic policy think about broad, risky macro-economic plans that miss the people that actually support their economy. This can result in expensive strategic mistakes some of which I have now witnessed in our ten years here:

  • hyper building sprees for houses and airports beyond market capacity
  • dreams of federal funding for a waterfront which may never materialize
  • proposed tax and land benefits for big box retail currently held aloft by an overheated BC housing market
  • strategic planning that will run train loads of coal through previously prosperous tourist and high-end retail districts
  • unqualified business community support for firms with copious federal contracts that manage to steer themselves right into dissolution anyway
  • committees of well meaning civic leaders who can't ever seem to provide for a really successful small business or corporate climate  downtown no matter how much they try.
How much money is wasted in well-meaning but eventually tragic macro-economic pipe dreams like these?  I know a business owner downtown I talk to with some frequency. He runs an older, well established business that he believes suffers from the proximity of an empty storefront across from him. He tried opening additional evening hours, but found his patrons intimidated by the presence of the homeless late in the evening. He has complained to me and the local downtown booster organization about the economic climate and I am supportive. So much more could be invested in downtown Bellingham. So many more businesses could be located there. If I were a city council person, I would make it my quest to add $10 million of new payroll each year to downtown Bellingham. How hard could that be for any concerned, innovative public official to pull off?

All of this makes me wonder about the intellectual capacities of those who promote "market economies" and capitalism.  Do they actually understand how important civic funding is to social fabric? Do they see the economic loss in relatively simple decisions that constrain library and museums hours for local families? Are we all just a helpless crew on a ship of fools, held captive by an incompetent capitalist class driving our town from one uncharted set of economic shoals to another?  I guess my wife and I will keep a lifeboat handy. Until then, I hope someone manages to keep the library and museum downtown well funded and open for longer hours. They are definitely worth it.  By the way, how come there isn't a decent hotel downtown?