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City, county leaders up their game in the fight for downtown: It’s a starting point

Bellingham's city-center 'narrative' plays out in glaring plain sight

Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig, left, and Sheriff Donnell "Tank" Tanksley speak at a Tuesday, Feb. 20 event announcing the increase of first-responder presence downtown. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ron Judd Executive Editor
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DOWNTOWN BELLINGHAM — Viewed from up high, near the top of Bellingham Towers, the manmade cityscape of our downtown core is a disconcerting mishmash of old and even older.

Sehome Hill is a sweet, green backdrop to a spread of past-prime concrete and brick, interrupted by small specks of potential. But, shoot, it’s always been a working-waterfront kind of town, more longshoreman than Lululemon.

Many of us are grateful for that bit of enduring authenticity. But in the past couple years, the dual scourges of fentanyl addiction and homelessness have inarguably made the downtown core feel like it’s slipped from unkempt to unsettling.

It doesn’t help that a prominent central feature is a hulking concrete parking garage — a blocklong swath of dank gray. At the otherwise-lonely base of this structure on Tuesday afternoon, a core gaggle of Whatcom County’s leadership assembled, zipped up against the usual 43-and-rain February bone-shuddering damp.

Given the setting, the presence of uniformed responders and red fire department vehicles might have left passersby thinking it was the scene of another overdose, or some other uncomfortable emergency.

In a way, yes to the latter.

This was a staged event, a photo-opp and announcement. Local leaders were doing two things, both significant:

They were signaling back to the public: We hear you about downtown’s increasingly sketchy vibe. And they were making a new show of force in a city core often populated disproportionately by people using drugs while living on streets and in alleys.

“I think there’s an acknowledgment that things have been bad,” said newly elected Mayor Kim Lund, calling downtown “the beating heart of Bellingham.”

Lund, flanked by the city’s police and fire chiefs — and, notably, newly badged Whatcom County Sheriff, Donnell “Tank” Tanksley — was there to pitch a new city initiative to beef up police patrols downtown and open a first-responder office near the Commercial Street Parking Garage, bringing emergency responders closer to the large numbers of downtown overdose calls.

It’s a first step, she emphasized. And it is a good start.

The new mayor praised city staff for a swift response to her call to action in the face of “another level of crisis” in city drug overdoses. But it’s worth noting that most of those dedicated public servants, justly praised, are the same folks who have been working the problem for months or years.

Will a new team captain prove to be the missing piece? We’ll see. The tide of social ills they face is deep, systemic and global in scope. But Lund and those around her said they are determined to “change the narrative” about downtown’s present and future.

Ah, narrative.

A concerned citizen can take this word two ways: One is its role as the buzzword of the well-paid downtown cheerleader: a place is only as bad as you think or say it is. The other is what I sensed here: a belief that the fate of a place is a storyline that can be steered by minor course adjustments — actions and deeds.

Again, a solid step. One that prompted ironic mental comparisons to a previous early brush with media by another woman fresh on the job as mayor, Kelli Linville, appearing before reporters at a local marina after a tragic fatal boat fire in spring 2012. In her first big moment addressing public grief, Linville launched her comments by noting that a previous city fire boat that might have saved the day was canceled by the previous mayoral administration, not hers.

Bad look, bad start, but in hindsight not surprising from a former state legislator for whom partisan politics had been both a long career and ingrained worldview.

The absence of that, both from Lund and her fellow incoming outsider, Tanksley, is welcomed, and should be appreciated. Both leaders present themselves as bright, concerned, compassionate, non-ideologues. Given the state of the nation’s politics, that’s a civic gift.

Fifty days into their tenures, flotsam no doubt is flying at them swiftly. But for the moment, smart citizens might afford them some benefit of the doubt.

As always, it will be fascinating to watch this play out from the observer’s seat. The role of a local newsroom is not to take a side in the push-me-pull-you game of narrative construction, but to chronicle it, identifying the would-be authors and their motivations.

Cascadia Daily News approaches the question and quandary of downtown Bellingham’s ongoing struggle with sincerity, empathy, hope — and a desire to highlight accountability.

The present course of downtown Bellingham, in a nation rocked by homelessness, shifting demographics, entrenched politics and rampant social ills, is not unique. Effective local solutions could be, and we are anxious to hear about those. The occasional misguided solutions — including the disposition of tens of millions of public dollars thrown at these problems every year — also are on the table. We’re eager to explore that, too.

Our approach to covering the mayor’s announcement this week might serve as an indicator of our intentions.

From left, Fire Chief Bill Hewett, Mayor Kim Lund and Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig announce the city’s plan to increase its response to opioid overdoses in downtown Bellingham. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

CDN played Tuesday’s media event online, in part, in the traditional way — with a story about the announcement and a photograph of civic leaders doing their thing. But the expected posing-politicians images were secondary. We chose to lead with a photograph made earlier, during an EMS ride-along, of a local official checking the welfare of a homeless person lying on the ground on a city sidewalk.

It felt honest, and appropriate. The people on both the left and right sides of that real-life image, one shrouded, one visible, are the active verbs and subjects of the downtown narrative — the story of what is and will become the heart of tomorrow’s Bellingham. Our focus, as already exhibited in recent work, starts there.

As resident inquisitive journalists, we recognize that in spite of the challenges and the immensity of the problems, people on both sides of the equation here make for a good story. We hope to tell it in ways that matter. But the narrative, as always, lives in the mind of the beholder.

Ron Judd's column appears weekly;; @roncjudd.

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