New strategies to foster a safe, welcoming environment in Bellingham’s downtown have been underway for more than a year and are continuing, with more than one million dollars in City investments directed toward downtown in 2023. These initiatives were identified with participation and feedback from the downtown business community and other stakeholders. We have listened carefully to downtown concerns and needs and heavily invested in the area with actions to make it clean, safe and welcoming. We are seeing positive results downtown from our focused efforts on safety, sanitation and outreach services.
We recognize, however, that public health and safety concerns continue. Despite these challenging circumstances, City leaders remain positive about the future of downtown and we strive to support the downtown community in various ways.
Context for downtown issues
Bellingham is not alone in facing challenges in our downtown, nor can we solve them all alone. The conditions and concerns we hear from community members and business owners are the result of many issues converging downtown and felt among our peer cities regionally and nationally. City leaders across the country are all working to address similar challenging problems.
Current state law, especially following the Blake decision, decriminalized drug use and possession, which makes it difficult to address drug-related behaviors. The City is engaged with state legislative representatives and exploring other strategies to correct this. (MRSC provides here a comprehensive overview of the Blake decision and possible 2023 legislative solutions.)
In addition, while we are confident that our investments in prevention and services will make a positive and lasting improvement in our community, we lack critical facilities. For example, booking restrictions at the Whatcom County jail are the main barrier to enforcing misdemeanor offenses, including trespassing. Creating or enhancing laws would still not allow the City to hold people in jail. We need a functioning jail as part of a coherent and compassionate criminal justice system. A campaign for a new jail is anticipated to be underway in 2023.
We also need treatment facilities and avenues for those who are gripped with addiction to have an alternative to incarceration.
These solutions take time and effort, and in some cases, we need our federal and state partners to lead or assist us. We are actively engaged in these topics with them.
City investments in downtown
Regardless of the challenges, we are seeing positive results from our many investments downtown, including:
- The City has continued funding in 2023 for two types of safety patrols downtown. Initiated in early 2022, private security officers and downtown safety ambassadors are providing more eyes on the street, connecting people to services, and deescalating behavioral issues.
- The City is spending $380,000 on private security patrols for downtown in 2023. State law limits this service to the public right-of-way and facilities so we cannot extend the service to private property.
- The City is spending an additional $318,000 this year on the downtown safety ambassador program, operated by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.
- The City’s collaboration with Downtown Bellingham Partnership has included communicating with businesses and other downtown stakeholders on these and other services. They have hosted feedback sessions, block leader meetings and public events, offer resource guides, and provide information about our work together on their website.
- The City has several other service contracts dedicated to supporting a clean and welcoming downtown:
- Lighthouse Mission Ministries: cleaning contract ($50,000) for blocks surrounding Basecamp
- Downtown Bellingham Partnership: cleaning and landscaping program ($165,000) and graffiti removal pilot project ($30,000)
- Homeless Outreach Team (City-wide) and numerous human services and housing program funding: Partnerships and Funding – City of Bellingham (cob.org)
- Bellingham Police provides extra emphasis patrols in areas that are experiencing increases in negative behavior interactions. The City has also partnered with other agencies on strategic and successful approaches to address complex problems in certain locations, such as near 22North and Basecamp.
- Bellingham Police recruitment and retention strategies have been successful at addressing police staffing shortages. Our Fall newsletter, delivered to all households in Bellingham, featured a summary of all we are doing to address our community’s public safety needs. Additional overviews about our work addressing public safety needs also available on the City website.
- The City has partnered with Whatcom County to establish alternative response services embedded within 911 dispatch to deploy behavioral health specialists and medical personnel in lieu of police response in situations of mental health crisis, services that will support downtown and elsewhere. This new service is in addition to services provided to vulnerable populations through the GRACE and LEAD programs, which the City also supports.
- The City directs about $10 million dollars each year to local housing programs, including those addressing homelessness. Additional information on how the City is addressing homelessness is available here: Addressing Homelessness – City of Bellingham (cob.org)
We remain committed and engaged with our various partners to continue addressing problems and finding solutions to concerns downtown.