New Ferndale Mayor Sees the City Moving Back to the Future

Greg Hansen personifies both the Old Guard and the New Wave of Ferndale, a little town where he grew up in berry and hay fields. It’s now a large, little town full of expansive business he’s administering to as freshly elected mayor and has been for the previous four years from a seat on the City Council. Here’s his view from the top…

Mike McKenzie

Business Pulse: What was your career path before public service and teaching?
Greg Hansen: I spent 20 years in the travel and hospitality industry—17 at the resort at Semiahmoo. It goes all the way back to working at Red Robin as a busser and working at Guiseppi’s restaurant in Bellingham while going through school. Later, I helped open Anthony’s restaurant.

BP: Did you ever dream of becoming mayor of your hometown?
GH: Definitely not. Even a year ago I would have told you I wasn’t ever going to run for mayor.
I mostly worked on farms growing up, and education was always an emphasis. My parents both were teachers. Mom taught elementary school. My father (Mel) was well-known as the band director at Ferndale High School. Coincidentally, I’m the second straight mayor (succeeding Jon Mutchler) whose father was a prominent band leader.

BP: Public service got into the family career DNA…
GH: Yes, my father also served four consecutive terms on the Ferndale City Council—16 years. That was a blessing and a curse. I did my best to use his good name to my advantage in campaigning and serving four years on the City Council.

BP: What changed your direction?
GH: A handful of people mentioned the possibility (of mayor) to me, including council members, and I brushed it off. Then the conversation about it became more and more common; people would stop me in the coffee shop and bring it up. There was enough talk with folks who come from different walks of life that I began seriously thinking about it. It took me three to four months to decide it was something I’d want to do.

BP: You’ll continue at Whatcom Community College?
GH: I love the teaching, and never want to give that up. But my thought was, “What do I have to lose?” Well, I would lose my council seat, and that’s OK. I thought I’d be good at it, and our community needs a change. So, I decided I’d give it a shot.

BP: What was your platform strategy?
GH: The main goal was just to run a good campaign. I looked at it from a professorial point of view—without the politics—and set out to run a quality campaign that would give the incumbent a good run for his money.
And we excelled. It’s a happy accident that I wound up in the mayor’s office.

BP: What’s changed, politically speaking?
GH: It’s a very different role than councilman—to implement policy rather than make policy. I’ll draw on my management background and bring those best practices to City Hall. I’m not one who believes you should run government like a business, but you definitely can learn and apply lessons from business.

BP: What’s your approach?
GH: The “right thing” is not always clear, because of so many different opinions on what’s right.
If I act on what’s good for the greatest number of people, I can’t go wrong. I just need to keep the community’s best interest in mind, not self-gain, and trust that’s what I’m doing.

BP: Have you practiced that as council member?
GH: Knowing when to listen to the outrage of the day or whether to take a principled stand. I’ve voted in favor of some difficult decisions that were unpopular (with taxpayers), but they were the right thing to do. I’ve had to defend my votes and explain my positions to the people. That’s an essential skill for a mayor.

BP: What’s the No. 1 issue on your front burner?
GH: Growth. We are a growing community, and that’s a controversial place to be. Some in Ferndale don’t want the community to grow at all, believing that they will have to pay for a growing population when they’ve been here all along. Some are on fixed income and really can’t afford to pay more. Some don’t want downtown to get crowded. I want to work to see that we grow in a responsible way.

BP: What’s the first step?
GH: Building a $27-million water treatment plant, because the city outgrew the existing one. It may seem like simple government business, but dealing with somebody’s water bill is not a simple issue.
It was a difficult battle we fought in the face of angry emails and phone calls and comments on social media. We had to make a tough decision and take the heat for it and a secure financial plan that will provide for our water infrastructure for the next 20 years.

BP: How’s that going?
GH: We were lucky enough to find a new water source when we dug down 1,031 feet for a new aquifer, and it was a source not used in Whatcom County. Previously, we drew our water from 100 feet down. We were able to drill a new well just 50 feet from the current well.

BP: Now what?
GH: It’s required creating infrastructure to deal with it—a different profile of water, a pump system, etc.—but that wasn’t as complex as it could’ve been. From results of all our tests, we believe this solves our water issues for a generation or more.

BP: How would you describe Ferndale’s profile?
GH: A common perception is that Ferndale is all about the two oil refineries and the aluminum smelter at Cherry Point and farming. But we also make stuff. We have numerous small-scale manufacturers. Take Samson Rope, for example. It’s a large company with worldwide reach and even has its product on the surface of Mars.

BP: Is manufacturing a point of emphasis going forward?
GH: We have an outstanding manufacturing, blue-collar community—and there’s still plenty of opportunities for others to join that club. We just have to create the synergy for it. We need to leverage our partnerships with the Port of Bellingham, with the Lummi Indian Business Council, and also have a more countywide perspective. Promoting economic development of industry is a full-time job for our city.

BP: Any examples?
GH: We changed zoning on a property on LaBounty Drive to help facilitate small-scale manufacturing and specialty retail. They haven’t taken occupancy yet, but it’s moving along.

BP: Any mitigation for the notorious traffic in town?
GH: We have awarded the $16.5 million contract to Strider Construction for the Thornton Street overpass. The preload work will start this spring, and projections have the overpass opening in 2023. Most growth in the last decade has been west of the city, and this project will relieve the pressure off of I-5 to avoid the downtown traffic.

BP: We hear a lot of buzz about a downtown makeover…
GH: To create a fresh village feel, we recognized that we must revitalize downtown. Our city government is relatively tax poor. We don’t have what most communities do; we scratch for every dime. We have floodplain issues. It’s expensive to build downtown. We haven’t seen anything really happen there in 25 years or more. That’s why we passed the Catalyst Program.

BP: How’d that work?
GH: Great. The Catalyst Program required a minimum of 15 housing units and 5,000 square feet of commercial space with parking on-site. If (applicants’) proposals met the requirements and brought innovation to our downtown, the city would waive their fees.
Thankfully, we got several good proposals, and in the end, we’ve awarded three. When you add the competitive aspect, it brings us a better project of benefit to the public. Getting those going will provide a catalyst for the renewal of downtown.

BP: Your main selling point?
GH: Ferndale is a good place for a developer to invest. Not many of our buildings are historical. Most don’t meet modern code requirements. In some cases, it would be better for a building to be razed and replaced with a modern structure.

BP: Is it underway or still on the drawing board?
GH: We’re finding a way to get it moving. At the end of December 2019, we approved a project for 119 housing units and 16,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor. Just over the bridge, going west, on the left where River Walk Park is. We’ll have an ‘L’ building double the size of the existing plaza, providing a beautiful public space, too.

BP: You mentioned three contracts.
GH: Boulos Twin Towers will consist of a 40-unit condominium complex, with 24,000 square feet of commercial space, sitting just west of the library. And across from City Hall on Main, we’ll have 24 housing units and 9,000 square feet of commercial.

BP: All this meets expectations?
GH: Originally, we thought we’d have 45 housing units, and we got almost 200. We required 15,000 square feet of commercial total and got almost 50,000. Wow. Way more than we thought we’d get.
Think about it: 200 housing units in downtown core. A true urban village feel. The overall result is a walkable downtown core. That makes the micro-brewery, the restaurants downtown, the shops all more viable.

BP: All within budget?
GH: We got especially excited when we started doing numbers. They show about $3.5 million in waived city fees as incentives. The beauty of it is, we’re not writing a check. Haylie Miller (community development director) already works for us anyway—an efficient use of existing infrastructure. We gain 200 water and sewer ratepayers but don’t have to pay connection fees. If we hadn’t adopted the Catalyst Program, none of this would have happened. Two million dollars in incentives makes the project profitable. It’s a net win for the city.

BP: Next steps?
GH: Now we’ve got to see this all the way through. The new City Council (Editor’s note: six of seven seats have first-term members) will be voting on getting them underway. As management, my role and our staff’s is to manage the results of that catalyst. Together, we’ll all have to address things like construction impact, how do we mitigate traffic, etc.

BP: Talk about the new high school plans.
GH: As an educator, a child of teachers and a graduate of Ferndale High School, I’ve always been somebody who believes you do whatever it takes to provide the best education. It’s the most valuable investment you can make in a community. Spending millions on a new high school, what a bargain. In terms of what it means to the people, it’s worth 10 times whatever it costs. Whatever the increase in property tax bill you wind up paying, it’s the best deal in town.

BP: Do you have a timeline?
GH: We’re doing all we can to fast-track the project. The Ferndale School District brought on board the architect and contractor at same time, for instance. They can work on the site plan and the building plan in collaboration, rather than in separate silos. My daughter is a freshman, and I’m hopeful that she might get to attend maybe a few weeks in the new school.

BP: Any obstacles to all this progress?
GH: Mainly, other than finances—how do we calm the old-timers? The people I grew up with. People who wonder if this is the Ferndale we really want. I believe we’re headed in the right direction. These projects—the catalyst, the new school, the Thornton overpass—will bring new life into our community. Those old-timers will once again be able to shop and eat downtown. It’s really bringing back the self-sufficient Ferndale of the’70s that they miss.

BP: What was that like?
GH: Mine was a typical Ferndale, small-town upbringing—mostly working on farms picking berries, pitching hay.

BP: Any favorite memories?
GH: Back-to-school shopping with Mom. We’d go to Jarvie’s department store, get some jeans. Then down to the next block to Larson’s Shoes. If I was good, my mom would give me a quarter and let me go next door to McKay’s to buy some candy and gum. Those days are just gone.

But there’s no reason we can’t have something else similar to that in a beautiful, modern version.