FERNDALE - A roundtable discussion among Whatcom County's small city mayors on Saturday morning, Feb. 16, touched on everything from Ferndale's need for new sidewalks to keeping tax dollars local to the gambling industry.
But the audience of about 80 people still found time to grill the mayors of Lynden, Blaine, Everson and Sumas about their stances on the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.
Each of the mayors signed a declaration in November supporting the terminal - and the jobs it would create - if an impact study found it could be built and operated with "good environmental practice."
Some audience members pointed out the mayors appear to have their minds made up already. Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis conceded that yes, he'd like to see it happen, but only after meticulous studying of the site.
And each panelist expressed his interest in getting those studies rolling.
"But if it turns out it'd be environmentally horrible, then I won't support it," said Blaine Mayor Harry Robinson.
Early on during a question and answer session, the speakers had to raise their voices over the wheels of a coal train clacking along about 20 paces from the meeting room at 5694 Second Avenue.
"The fact is, whether (a mayor) is for or against it is immaterial," said Mel Hansen, Ferndale's mayor pro tem in Gary Jensen's absence. "What it really comes down to is what the (Environmental Protection Agency) comes up with in the scoping process."
Small city economics turned out to be the other hot topic at the forum, put on by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County. Finding steady sources of tax revenue - to patch up aging infrastructure and build new sidewalks - has been challenging, given how the whims of Canadian shoppers hinge on exchange rates that are out of anyone's control.
Sumas, for example, was a gambling town back in the '90s.
"We had the top three gambling establishments in the state," said Mayor Bob Bromley. "They funded our whole police department. Today, we collect zero (revenue) on any kind of gambling tax."
Then there's the challenge of competing with Bellingham for shoppers. Sometimes it seems like the bigger fish eat the little ones.
"Scott (Korthuis) is trying to keep people from going to Bellingham to shop? We're trying to keep people from going to Lynden," joked Everson Mayor John Perry.
Each month, the mayors meet up to talk about how they can bring new job creators to the less urban parts of Whatcom County.
"We have a lot of people who want to go back 30 years ago and create a downtown that has retail stores, restaurants, et cetera," Robinson said. "I don't know. Maybe the time has passed us by."