Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to create a safe and prosperous downtown...

A post from the indomitable Tara Almond, currently legislative aide for 40th LD representative Jeff Morris, made me remember how much I have to say as a father and citizen about the health of Bellingham's downtown. Bellingham's downtown was one of the original reasons I concluded Bellingham would be a good place to live and raise a family. Originally, when I scouted this place, I rented a hotel room on Samish and spent the next three days walking the entire town from Fairhaven to Cornwall Park.  I walked around Bellingham's downtown repeatedly. I was pleasantly surprised at how safe it seemed. As a note, both my wife and I were raised in east Oakland. I had never really walked through a downtown without my senses alert and guard up. I just didn't realize that until I moved here.

As I have mellowed  and lost many of my 'street instincts' in the last 12 years here, I can easily see now how there are real problems that need addressing downtown and these problems are distressing to many residents.  I sent the letter below based on my beliefs that small communities like this should cultivate a  downtown that is  "family centered" and create appeal to parents who want to move here to give their children a safe and prosperous community to grow up in.  I invite you as readers to send your thoughts to these elected and non-elected officials below. Nurturing and cultivating a prosperous, safe downtown is so important. Many activists and citizen organizations here think and pontificate about this. Much important work has been done by many both publicly and privately.  If you have something to say, your voice should be heard.


Ryan M. Ferris
[address info removed for this blog]

I appreciate all the efforts that have gone into improving downtown and downtown safety[1]. Problems of homelessness and petty crime are endemic to a capitalist economy and will improve as our economy moves toward full employment and a stronger middle class. An important key to improving downtown that I don't hear discussed often enough is making it more friendly for families especially those with young children. The more families you draw downtown, the more money is spent there and the more citizenry is invested in protecting the condition of downtown.[2]  The Museum (e.g. the FIG and Children's Museum), the Library reading and manipulatives program (e.g. "little story time"), the Farmer's Market have all been excellent steps in that direction. Here are some more suggestions, listed from easy to fund to more difficult to fund: 

(A) Maritime Heritage Park needs a excellent children's play structure either in front of the environmental building, or to the east of the new BTC fisheries center.  Ideally, one each for toddlers and ages 5 - 12. The homeless congregate at that park both near the fisheries and Holly Street entrance. This makes it uninviting for families. So if you put in a first rate children's play structure, families will return. There is no play structure downtown now. Rory (my two year old) and I either stop at Elizabeth or Fouts Park and/or drive/stroll to Boulevard Park.  There's really no limit on how many families use play structures to entertain their children.  My two year old and I will often hit two parks a day during the summer months.

(B) Library and Museum hours should be extended. Both the FIG and the "Little Story Time" programs draw hundreds of children and parents each week. For a 'stay at home parent' like myself, these programs are functionally "what we do for day care".  The FIG should be open Monday and Tuesdays. The Library (including the Children's library) should be open until 8 PM with evening "Little Story Time" hours so that working parent(s) can make it.  You should increase funding to both these programs explicitly to maintain new exhibits, more hours, more staff.

(C) One of the next big civic projects should be the Central Library reconstruction. Build a first rate, first class library with a huge space for children of all ages. Put in reading rooms with comfy chairs, manipulative rooms for the young kids, arts and crafts rooms, etc. Believe me, families will come. Literally, they will come from all over Whatcom County and beyond. Include a movie viewing center for children's films year round and show films in the evenings as well as during the days.

As a note, a phenomenon I see at the FIG in particular are families coming from out of county or grandparents who are visiting with their grandchildren.  Let's face it: It's only a certain class of people who will make a point to see the (adult) art exhibits.  I suspect much of the draw to the museum proper is from tourists.[3] During the rainy season especially (8 - 10 months each year here in case you have forgotten) , I see many parents and nannies visiting the children's museum two or three times each week.

Helping to create strong families and a strong family centered downtown will pay back exceptional dividends economically and socially. It's probably the one of the most remunerative solutions government can provide to its citizens. It may also be your cheapest and most successful long term method to solve homelessness, narcotics and delinquency. There are many elements I could talk about on that subject. The most obvious one to me is that family infrastructure downtown gets families talking to one another and children playing with each other. Another is that family infrastructure downtown helps create the impression that Bellingham is a good place to move to, buy a house, and raise a family. Ahhhh! More real estate taxes! More property taxes! More BOT taxes from all the diapers and milk we buy at Costco! Families provide!

[2] As an example, we spend $75 a year on our Museum membership. I have no idea what multiple of that I spend at Twofifty Flora...
[3] Having tourists and tour groups come from out of town to the Museum is fantastic.  However, my guess is that most Whatcom families with young children where both or one of the parents work never get the time to see the new exhibits. 

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