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Washington REALTORS® Play A Big Role In Bellingham’s Community Improvements

By HOM Editor
September 2017

The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) have been working with REALTORS® across the nation in order to lend support to their community building efforts. One of the many ways NAR helps is by providing financial and technical assistance with a variety of “Placemaking Grants.” Some associations use the grant as a needed, one-time community boost while many others consider it an ongoing resource for neighborhood improvements.

The Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® (WCAR) is one of the associations who have integrated Placemaking Grants into their long term strategy. In 2015, the 534 members of the WCAR began executing the first of many creative neighborhood projects in the city of Bellingham, Washington thanks to a grant of $1,500.

The community felt that a lot of the area’s individuality had been diminished by the arrival of strip malls and shopping centers. So WCAR’s first placemaking initiative focused on projects that would symbolize the neighborhood’s individuality and vibrance. These included; a painted concrete ‘soapbox” that anyone could “preach” from and a vibrant hanging garden that turned a multi-story car park into a pleasing green space.

The following year, WCAR sought additional placemaking funds, this time asking for a grant that would give them $15,000 to work with. WCAR Executive Officer Perry Eskridge shared that Past President Cerise Noah realized that if they were successful in obtaining this grant they would, “need a community partner to help implement the program, so she forged a partnership with Sustainable Connections.”

Sustainable Connections is an organization dedicated to bringing together local businesses who have a common goal of sustainable practices and community building. WCAR was already acting as a sponsor for Sustainable Connections’s superhero themed creative competition – KAPOW! The additional funds they received from the grant meant that WCAR would also be able to fully fund one of KAPOW!’s winning projects.

The KAPOW! competition attracted dozens of proposals, each containing ideas on how to best improve Bellingham’s North State Street corridor, a high-profile downtown location with an outdated infrastructure. The fast-paced and fun event was held at the Mount Baker Theater and attended by 500 community members.

The 24 competitors were required to present their ideas in “PechaKucha” format. Meaning that each competitor had just seven minutes and no more than 20 PowerPoint slides in which to pitch their ideas. In the end, the winning projects were chosen based on their creativity, innovation, potential to bring a true social impact to Bellingham.

WCAR’s 2016 President MaryKay Robinson, noted how fun it was to watch the parade of dynamic, well-organized proposals. Robinson was part of the selection process and helped to name 3 KAPOW! competitors whose concepts would be realized – the Mayor’s Choice award, the juried Superhero award and the People’s Choice award.

Robinson shared that two audience members actually spoke up and offered to fund two additional proposals that hadn’t initially made the final cut. So the highly successful KAPOW! event ended the night with eight, fully funded community improvement projects.

Among the winning projects was a coin-operated all-weather dance space; a giant sidewalk hopscotch game and a bicycle maintenance, map and repair station. The winning project that WCAR chose to fund was a State Street light installation – a solar system scale model that will bring an interactive, pedestrian element down the length of the North State Street corridor.

Rose Lathrop, Green Building & Smart Growth Manager at Sustainable Connections felt that WCAR’s contributions helped the event to be a tremendous success. Lathrop reports that the KAPOW!’s outcome 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.

WCAR’s Government Affairs Director Perry Eskridge shared her organization’s enthusiasm for community transformation projects like KAPOW! Eskridge noted that the association will continue to seek out new placemaking opportunities moving forward, “It’s good to be a part of the good things happening here in Bellingham.”

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