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Washington REALTORS® Help Revitalize Downtown Bellingham

In 2015, a neighborhood in the city of Bellingham, Washington, received a few fairly modest, highly creative additions intended to improve the quality of life and build community. They included a painted concrete ‘soapbox’ for anyone to preach from, and a hanging garden adding vibrant greenery to the side of a multi-storey car-park: signs of life that signaled the slow but steady revival of the city’s downtown district, the vitality of which had been drained by the arrival of shopping malls in outlying areas several decades ago.

The 534-member Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® (WCAR) had supported the placemaking competition that brought these colorful improvements to the city streets. The following year, in 2016, a Level 3 Smart Growth Action Grant kicked its involvement up a notch: as a major sponsor of a placemaking event that drew 24 competitors and more than 500 community members, resulting in five new projects and paving the way for even more. WCAR positioned itself as a distinctly positive force in Bellingham’s urban renewal.     

WCAR Executive Officer Perry Eskridge credits Past President Cerise Noah as being the one with the vision to engage the REALTORS® in revitalizing the city center. “She was at a Downtown Bellingham Plan meeting when the placemaking concept was pitched, and recognized it as a good project for the REALTORS®,” says Eskridge. “She also realized that if we succeeded in getting a REALTOR® Party grant, we’d need a community partner to help implement the program, so she forged a partnership with Sustainable Connections, a highly effective local organization that got the job done, and made it great fun for the community.”

Rose Lathrop, Sustainable Connections’ Green Building & Smart Growth Manager, organized a colorful competition that attracted dozens of proposals to add life to Bellingham’s North State Street corridor, a high-profile downtown location suffering from outdated infrastructure and lack of public funding. The event was called “KAPOW!” and the super-hero theme packed a punch of creative energy. Eight projects, chosen for their creativity, innovation, potential to be realized and social impact, were presented to an enthusiastic crowd at the Mount Baker Theater in a rapid-fire pecha kucha format, which allows each competitor just under seven minutes and twenty PowerPoint slides to convey a concept. 

WCAR 2016 President MaryKay Robinson, who served on the committee that chose the finalists, notes how fun it was to watch the parade of dynamic, well-organized proposals, of which three were granted the Mayor’s Choice Award, the juried Superhero Award and the People’s Choice Award. “We had funding budgeted for those three awards,” she explains, “but the great thing was that two audience members felt compelled to fund two others that had appealed most to them. So we actually had five winners!” Among them are a coin-operated all-weather dance space; a giant sidewalk hopscotch game; and a bicycle maintenance, map and repair station. WCAR opted to finance the State Street light installation, part of a solar system scale model that will bring a more human, pedestrian element down the length of the North State Street corridor, says Eskridge.      

Lathrop agrees that the event was a tremendous success, and reports that the process has also inspired the city of Bellingham to make additional investments on State Street, including re-striping for reduced lane widths and traffic calming measures. Based on the strength of the 2016 event, she is now planning a KAPOW! placemaking event for this year focused on Birchwood, a  neighborhood separated from the rest of the city by both economic barriers and physical divides, notably a ravine and an airport.

Beyond the enlivening benefits for the city, says Eskridge, the placemaking events and projects shine a positive light on the REALTORS® as they invest back in to the community. “It’s good to be a part of the good things happening here in Bellingham, and we’re very grateful to the REALTOR® Party for its support of our efforts.”

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Whatcom County are helping to revitalize areas of downtown Bellingham, Washington, contact Perry Eskridge, Executive Officer of the Whatcom County Association of REALTORS®, at 360-671-5477, or WCAR 2016 President MaryKay Robinson at 360-734-7500.

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