Canadian interest in Whatcom is growing
Canadian businesses like Whatcom County. Most businesses here already have some connection to our northern neighbor, said John Michener, economic development project manager at Port of Bellingham.
“We saw interest pre-pandemic and throughout the pandemic,” Michener said. “We’re getting more inquiries now. These decisions, these projects, take a long time — five or six years — as they study conditions. We’re definitely seeing more interest today.”
In September 2020, Marcon Metalfab of Delta, British Columbia, which makes parts for bridges and other major transportation projects, purchased property in Ferndale for its second manufacturing location. In October 2022, Alliance Freeze Dry Group, a Canadian pet food manufacturer with a facility in Langley, British Columbia, broke ground for a 220,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on nearly 10 acres in Lynden. The facility, called Canature Kitchen Lynden, is slated to be completed in 2024. In June 2023, Sunrise Kitchens of Surrey, British Columbia, which makes kitchen cabinets, expanded into Whatcom County with its purchase of Hertco Kitchens, a Ferndale cabinetmaker. (Hertco itself was founded in 1981 in Langley, British Columbia, and expanded in Delta. It moved to the U.S. in 1995, to Custer, and to Ferndale two years later.) In September 2023, Vicinity Motor Corp., an electric vehicle manufacturer based in Aldergrove, British Columbia, opened a 100,000-square-foot electric truck assembly facility on Labounty Drive in Ferndale.
More Canadian connections are in the works. “I talked to three companies today that are thinking of expanding here,” Michener said.
His job supports all Whatcom business, not just the port. With the goal of helping Canadian businesses locate here, in 2014 the port joined the 6,000-member Surrey Board of Trade. Michener is the only American on its board of directors.
“Surrey is growing like nobody’s business,” Michener said. He expects Surrey to be larger than Vancouver by 2041. At least one Canadian online media source predicts that will happen years earlier.
“With agricultural land reserved, they’re running out of space for industrial development,” Michener said. “We’re going to see a large push from Canadians who will look this way to expand. Property is getting expensive there. It’s cheaper here.”
At a business park in south Surrey called Campbell Heights West, land is going for 7 million Canadian dollars ($5.15 million) per acre, Michener said.
“Campbell Heights is shovel-ready. We don’t have quite that level of preparation (here). It’s $500,000 to $600,000 per acre for the better-prepared parcels here. We don’t have a big, planned development like Campbell Heights. Here, it’s more one-off,” Michener said, adding that Whatcom’s smaller business parks are successful. “But nothing here is the scale of Campbell Heights. We don’t have the population base they have.”
Whatcom County’s population is roughly 229,000, according to a 2021 census. The city of Surrey in 2021 was 568,000. Nearly 1,000 people move to Surrey every month, according to a Surrey government website.
Plus, lower mainland British Columbia in general is growing, Michener said.
“As businesses grow in Canada, and markets are good, they’ll want to expand,” he said. “They’ll look south. If a company is growing and a lot of their product is exported into the U.S., why not manufacture here, to save issues with duties and tariffs?”
Jim Pettinger is the recently retired owner of UCanTrade, which provides office, warehouse, distribution and return/repair services for Canadian companies. A Canadian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, Pettinger founded the company in 1984 and sold it in 2019. He had about 100 Canadian clients in the latter years.
“Whatcom is unique,” Pettinger said. “The border is more dotted line than barrier.”
Americans, even this close to the border, don’t know much about Canada, Pettinger said. “They tend to wait for Canadians to come this way. Initiative and commerce are mostly one way.”
Mark Lervik, former manager of Copac on Grandview Road in Ferndale, concurred that cross-border business was mostly Canadians reaching out to Copac. In the mid-1990s, Copac, which was initially the timber company Coast Pacific Trading, purchased a share in Grandview Industrial Park. It became Copac Properties LLC and today is Copac Self-Storage.
“We started building buildings,” Lervik said. “Mostly Canadians contacted us about renting. We didn’t pursue Canada. They inquired about opening a U.S. facility or expanding.”
Pettinger, whose business rented space at Copac, sees two major categories of Canadian businesses in Whatcom: Canadian-owned businesses and Whatcom businesses that provide services for Canadians.
“Canadian businesses in Whatcom seem to be in pockets, or segments,” Pettinger said. “They don’t talk much to each other.”
The range includes retail, tourism, agriculture, transportation, warehousing, real estate (residential and commercial), legal and accounting services, religion, medical and more, Pettinger said.
How can Whatcom County attract more Canadian business? Offer prepared space, Michener said.
“If a Canadian wants to be in a business park here, the more ready it is, the better,” he said. “Certainty is what they’re looking for. No surprises. The more done ahead of time, the easier it will happen. The price of property, permitting … they want to know how, when, cost. That’s universal for business. The more certain your process is, the more companies you will attract.”
Numbers on how many Canadian companies are here do not exist. That’s partly because Whatcom’s business ties to Canada are many and varied. They include companies with beginnings in Canada, companies bought by Canadians, Canadian companies with a U.S. branch that grew to stand alone, companies that sell to Canada, and local folks employed by Canadian companies who then establish similar businesses of their own, Michener said.
“Some Canadians got green cards and started here because it suited their market,” Michener said. “The majority of businesses in Whatcom County have some tie to Canada. There’s not a number you can put on it.”
An example of one such tie is Hempler Foods Group, started by a German immigrant to Bellingham in 1934 when he bought a little meat-and-sausage company here. The business, operated ever since by the Hempler family, has been owned since 2006 by Premium Brands Holdings Corporation, a publicly held Canadian food manufacturing and distribution outfit.
Michener remembers meeting the owner of Marcon Metalfab in 2014 or 2015 and staying in touch as conditions changed over the years. The owner saw the U.S. federal government gearing up to invest in infrastructure that had to be manufactured in the United States, so expanding into close-by Whatcom made sense. At the same time, Marcon was running out of room in Delta.
“I stayed in touch,” Michener said. “It’s building relationships. It sounds trite, but it’s true.”
As the port’s economic development project manager, Michener is not waiting for Canadians to come to us.
“The more we grow our base, the more we improve our quality of life,” he said. “The population of Whatcom County is growing. Let’s be intentional and bring the growth we know will help us.”