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Ferndale: Graduating from Awkward Adolescent into the Next Big Thing

August 2015

Country Growth

Ferndale: Graduating from Awkward Adolescent into the Next Big Thing

by Riley Sweeney

Hello readers of the Whatcom Watch, you might remember me, Riley Sweeney as that snarky blogger who hung up his keyboard earlier this year to take a job with the city of Ferndale as their communications officer. While I did get some ribbing for “selling out,” I’m actually doing the same thing I’ve always done, taking the complex, arcane and frequently inane processes of local government and trying to explain them to the public.

So when the board president of the Whatcom Watch asked me to write an article about the challenges Ferndale will be facing in the future, I couldn’t pass it up. However, if you are looking for an article about how SSA Marine has secretly bought and sold every city employee in Ferndale, you are going to be sadly disappointed. There are no nefarious cabals or unmarked envelopes full of cash, just one community charting its course into the next 20 years.

Defying Definitions

The city of Ferndale may seem like a mismatched sock drawer — part blue-collar industrial, part rural agriculture, with far more people living here than you might remember. We have some of the oldest and newest buildings in the county. We are a city of immigrants and old farming families, tribes and tradesmen, log cabins and LEED-certified structures. This unusual mix is part of the challenge; Ferndale is just developing its voice for the big stage. In Bellingham, it can be easy to dismiss Ferndale as some gangly cousin, a less hip suburb, that “friend” you run into once every couple of years and can never remember their name, however Ferndale has been rapidly evolving in the last ten years and is just getting ready for the next big thing.


Ferndale is the fastest growing city in Western Washington outside of King County. In the last 15 years, Ferndale has nearly doubled in population. The once sleepy downtown has stretched east to I-5, folding in new retail space and bolstering our neighborhoods. So far this year, the city has issued more permits for new houses than any year prior to the Great Recession. Add in the new jail being built on LaBounty, the opening of more retail space and applications for over a quarter million square feet of industrial or other commercial space — and you have a rapid changing community.

In short, Ferndale is booming.

This growth requires careful planning. From the council chambers to the breakfast table, Ferndale folks have been discussing how to grow and grow in the right way. Building an endless strip mall is easy, crafting a city that’s walkable, vibrant and sustainable? That requires some heavy lifting.

To meet these growing demands, Ferndale has invested in its infrastructure. In the past eight years, we have taken advantage of our high bond ratings and low construction costs and built a brand new police station and library, upgraded our water system, repaved one of the largest roads in our city and renovated our community center. These investments are essential to support our growth in a responsible way. Since 2000, the city has invested over $20 million in its downtown core.

Currently, the city is rewriting its Comprehensive Plan, our guiding document for the next 20 years. Instead of a top-down, staff-driven process, we are holding a series of mobile city halls around town focusing on different communities and issues (seniors, educators, downtown business, immigrant populations, etc.). Check out for the latest updates.


I, a Bellinghamster, in coming to Ferndale noticed a big shift in attitude at the city level — the all-encompassing pragmatism of the Ferndale community. At the permit desk, for instance, there is a standing order to “Find a way to say yes.” This does not mean shirking environmental standards but rather working with builders to find a way to meet the code without breaking the bank.

One of the ways we do that is through our EAGLE standards program for retail development. Rather than a “one-size fits all” approach to development standards, we have adopted retail design guidelines that allow developers to customize their buildings to meet local concerns and expectations while mitigating their impacts. Rather like completing a degree at a university, each building must get a certain number of credits in each subject, (environmental efficiency, advanced technology, greater good, low impact, economic development). We give retail developers credit for paying a living wage (at least $11.65 with health care benefits paid), rain water harvesting, enhancing natural vegetation and even for donating to the Ferndale Food Bank.

Our pragmatism extends to our use of public space. Mayor Jensen is fond of saying, “The greenest building is the one that is reused.” When we need a new police station, we looked to our old library. We moved the library into our community center and upgraded the old library into a top-notch police station. Then we built a new library and used the improvements made to the community center during the meantime as a springboard for our renovation of that space. These people really believe that there is a better way to do things — I’ve heard them call it “The Ferndale Way” — and more often than not they are right.


Boy, Riley, that’s sure plenty of happy talk about what you’ve done. I thought this was about the future. Hold on, impatient reader, I’m getting there. With those infrastructure investments in place, we are gearing up for the Next Big Thing. For the first time in 20 years, our Comprehensive Plan will include an economic development element outlining how we are going to foster family-wage jobs in our city. We are looking at improving walkability and building unique community spaces like our brand new STAR Park (due to open Summer 2016).

But a community is not made up of pay stubs and spreadsheets, it is made up of people. Our strength as we plan our next steps comes from the endless creativity of our citizens. Join us for our Sunday Market where you can find local farmers side-by-side with second-generation Americans selling their crafts. Dive head first into the Muds to Suds August 29th, or marvel at the bronzes, batiks and objects of Beauty at our Art in the Park Sept 12th. Dance your heart out to a local band at the Main Street Bar and Grill or discover a long-lost friend at our senior center. Or simply talk to us on Facebook, where we have the third most popular page of any city in Washington — regardless of the population of that city.

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I can confidently predict that Ferndale will become a bigger and better player in Whatcom County over the next 20 years. Yeah, we’re different. No, we’re not subdued. We are the City of Opportunity, and we are finally ready for the Next Big Thing.

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