Interview by Mike McKenzie
Recently, contributing Business Pulse Editor Mike McKenzie talked with Tony Larson about his wide-ranging background and vision for the future of Whatcom County. Tony has created numerous successful ventures: Founder/President of the Whatcom Business Alliance (WBA); publisher of Business Pulse; Owner of the Bellingham Bells Baseball Club; startup of community events; elected to the Whatcom County Council, and now a candidate for Whatcom County Executive. He has served in leadership positions on many boards of directors. He coached youth sports. WWU named him a Builder of Bellingham. Junior Achievement and the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, and other organizations, have presented him awards. Given his lifetime dedication to his hometown community, we thought it would be fun to engage with Tony in a casual discussion.
MM: You are fully immersed in the community. Where did the passion for this engagement begin?
TL: I was born in Bellingham. I love this community. Namely, the geography in proximity to two major cities, the parks and lakes and mountains and sea, hiking and biking and countless other recreational opportunities, the quality of the schools, and the people here. I always knew this is where I wanted to raise my family. When I graduated from Western, I decided I would figure out a way to stay. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do anything and everything I can to contribute to the greater good of this great community.
What triggered your affinity for entrepreneurial interests?
Several early student experiences. One that was fun was starting a textbook business. As Business Manager for University publications—the Western Front, and Klipsun Magazine—I had an office in College Hall. I was studying there for finals one night, and on a break I read an opinion piece in the Western Front that said, “Bend over, it’s buy-back time at the bookstore.” It was about how students feel like they’re getting shafted when they sell back their textbooks. Within 48 hours, I had the book business started—buying wholesale, selling affordably, and saving students money.
What were some other entrepreneurial influences?
Also while in college, I took a job in Lynden at a place called Baron’s. We sold electronics, TVs, and new and used musical instruments, including a leasing program to Whatcom County students in music programs. I was hired by Sid Baron, who passed away last March at 89. Sid was an extraordinary entrepreneur, mentor, and friend. He founded 40 different businesses—all very successful in many different industries. The radio station now known as Praise 106.5 FM. Exxel Pacific Construction. Baron Telecommunications, just to name a few.
I learned much more from him than I did in earning a degree in economics and finance. I loved him very much. Even in his latter days, we’d meet for lunch frequently. That relationship gave me a strong desire to mentor young people the same way he was a mentor to me.
Business Pulse, Bellingham Bells, and Whatcom Business Alliance (WBA) seem like very different enterprises. What was the idea spurring your involvement in each?
Actually, they are all connected in many ways. They’re all about making a positive impact on the community. Business Pulse has always been about informing local readers about the people, news, and trends that make Whatcom County a better place. It’s also been a communication vehicle to lift up people and organizations that are doing positive things, and highlighting them as an example for others to follow. That also was the impetus for many of our events, like our annual Business Awards dinner that will sell out for the 34th year in March 2020.
The Bellingham Bells baseball club is an outstanding community builder. When the previous owner, a sports attorney from Philadelphia, announced he was going to sell the team and move it to Spokane, I thought it would be a huge loss for Bellingham and the entire area. The Bells’ history pre-dates WWII. We’ve had several farm teams here, including those for the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants. I connected with him, opened up a conversation, and got ownership approval from the league. We bought the franchise and kept it in Bellingham. We operated the Bells for eight years before selling to Hall of Famer George Brett and his brothers, who operated out of Spokane but maintained the team here.
Talk about your founding of the WBA?
The genesis of the WBA began with an observation and asking a simple question. First, I observed so many quality business people in industries ranging across farming, manufacturing, technology, construction, lumber, commercial fishing, goods and services, and more. A common denominator is how they work hard, create opportunities for their employees, pay significant taxes that fund necessary public services, contribute to community causes—all to the betterment of Bellingham and Whatcom County.
Busy doing what they do, they often have been overlooked as it relates to engaging in public-policy issues that directly impact them. I asked myself, and many of them, what would it look like if we created a forum that got these business people together to weigh in on the important challenges facing our community? The answer to that question prompted the startup of the WBA.
What are you most proud of regarding the work the WBA does?
I’m most proud of the quality of the people on our board of directors and of our hundreds of members. They are persons and organizations truly interested in community welfare. They care. The WBA brings together business leaders to share experiences and best practices, and to connect in social settings. They get to know each other better and discuss business and community issues. These conversations often lead to lofty discussions about social issues and the solutions that policymakers wrestle with.
Business leaders are problem-solvers by nature. They have great ideas that too often haven’t been a part of the past dialogue, publicly. Through the WBA, they have an opportunity to join that dialogue. A prime example is how our Youth Engagement Initiative started. We asked how we could prepare local kids for the workforce. In less than a year, we have launched YES Whatcom (Youth Employment Services), a website that bridges the gap between high school students interested in entry-level jobs with possibilities for advancement. The success has been extraordinary. I’m proud of the business community not just talking, but taking action.
What is the most misunderstood thing about the WBA?
You can’t advocate on behalf of local businesses and community prosperity without engaging in public-policy discussions. Those discussions are considered political. In a divisive political environment, people tend to label and choose sides. Unfortunately, that stifles dialogue and a situation in which people don’t listen to each other’s ideas.
So, what might be misunderstood by some is that the WBA is not partisan. Its membership unquestionably is biased toward business success, which leads to community prosperity and, thereby, the enhancement of this marvelous area where we live—and we have to be political in some cases to do that.
At the core, we are problem solvers. We want to dialogue with everyone, regardless of political views, using facts and reason. That’s why we finance studies on issues prior to taking any positions. We try to get the data first and, after careful review, then develop ideas and solutions through thoughtful positive dialogue after bringing other ideas to the table.
Using that segue, why you are running for County Executive?
It’s pretty hard to go anywhere around here without gaining an understanding that Whatcom County is growing. Our population has grown 8% in just the last five years. We are at a crossroads. So many opportunities lie in front of us, but many challenges, as well. Housing prices and rents are increasing far beyond what average wages can support. We have a real worker housing shortage as a result of slow and costly permitting and lack of permitted buildable land.
We are witness to alarming increases in homelessness. Much of this is connected to substance-abuse and mental-health problems. We see a rise in property crimes as a result. These are just a few of the issues that have a potential to get out of control if we don’t address them in a serious way now.
For example, instead of talking about where to locate tent cities, we should be talking about finding compassionate solutions for our homeless that eliminate the need for tent cities and illegal camping. We could be doing so many things to address the housing supply problem. The challenges in front of us are all solvable. We just need strong leadership from someone willing to address them directly.
What is the role of the Whatcom County Executive?
The County Executive is a manager, not a policy maker. That’s the County Council’s role. The Executive is a non-partisan, leadership position responsible for making sure the County is run efficiently, effectively, within budget, and with unwavering transparency. The County has 825 employees and a $220 million budget. Taxpayers expect their tax dollars to be invested in a way that makes Whatcom County a better place to live, work, and play.
To me, that means directing resources to improve public safety and health, and to build and maintain county roads, bridges, technology, parks, trails, and other infrastructure. It also means supporting local business success so companies, large and small, can hire and pay livable wages and benefits.
We must maintain reasonable and effective protections for our environment and Lake Whatcom and make sure we have a safety net for those most vulnerable among us who need it.
As County Executive, I would treat every dollar spent as an investment. As such, we should expect measurable returns on every investment. If we don’t make the impacts and get the results we expect, we should look at different options, always with an understanding there will be better and more effective approaches coming if we pay careful attention.
Anything you would like to add?
Yes—how important it is for every registered voter in Whatcom County to participate in the process by paying attention and casting a ballot. That is particularly important for leaders who are responsible for their business’s success and the well-being of not just their own families, but also for employees and their families. Keeping the constituency informed and sharing how these issues impact their own livelihoods is an important responsibility. When people participate, our community is stronger.