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Revitalizing Bellingham: A closer look at downtown grants

How the Storefront Improvement Grant is transforming Bellingham's commercial landscape

Fringe Boutique, located at 201 W. Holly St., Bellingham, Wash., on May 10, 2024. The 20-foot teal sign displays the name of the store and the merchandise they carry. The sign was revitalized with the use of a Storefront Improvement Grant. // Photo by Andrea Ornelas

Intending to revitalize Bellingham's downtown economy and preserve its historic charm, the Storefront Improvement and Community Activation Zone Grants, managed by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership (DBP) and funded by BECU Credit Union, accepted applications from April 22 until Monday. Recipients expect to be notified by the end of the month.

The DBP has been collaborating with BECU's philanthropic division for several years. 

“We've been fortunate to have this partnership since at least fall 2021, with a shared commitment to supporting entrepreneurial endeavors, particularly for minority-owned businesses. This grant program has been a consistent priority for their support,” said Jenny Hagemann, Development and Communications Manager at DBP.

The Storefront Improvement Grant offers businesses an opportunity to refurbish their storefronts with improvements like paint and signage to street-visible locations.

The Community Activation Zone Grant offers the opportunity for businesses to host events from May to October on the 1300 block of Commercial Street and the Commercial Street Plaza, featuring activities like silent discos, block parties and artistic performances, according to the DBP website. 

The Community Activation Zone Grant’s funding pool consists of $9,000 in total, with the potential to be awarded to anywhere between nine to 18 businesses. The Storefront Improvement Grant has a pool of $10,000, with the potential to award a minimum of five businesses, according to Hagemann.

“This is a competitive program. It is something that we try to be equitable [with] and provide a decision-making framework that we feel is going to have the highest impact to both the business as well as the community when we're evaluating this,” she said.

The program aims to prioritize funding for businesses that are minority- and Black, Indigenous and people of color-owned, and have historically been disadvantaged.

“Both BECU and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership are aligned and inclined to award funding to people who have traditionally been underserved,” Hagemann said.

Rhiannon Troutman, president of the DBP board of directors and owner of Fringe Boutique located at 201 W. Holly St., was one of the awardees for the Storefront Improvement Grant in 2023.

According to Troutman, she had applied for the grant a couple of years prior but didn’t receive it. Last year, her store relocated to downtown Bellingham in a building that had been a bridal shop for 50 years.

“We were moving into a really old building and needed a lot of things updated. So we did a ton of work to update the inside and the Storefront Improvement Grant was a really good opportunity to help spruce up the outside,” Troutman said. “The main thing that we used it for was redoing the 20-foot sign that stretches the whole story.” 

According to Troutman, the grant has made a substantial difference for her and her business by alleviating some of the financial strain caused by inflation and rising operational costs, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think everybody is well aware of how crazy inflation is right now and the cost of everything, just the cost of doing business is insane,” Troutman said. “So to be able to have a grant that can help pay for something is really significant.”

The project's success underscores the importance of community support and collaboration. According to Troutman, local businesses played a crucial role in the sign project. She partnered with Stickers for Days, a local company specializing in vinyl stickers located at 2110 James St., for the creation of the sign. 

The City of Tacoma, similarly, has a program called the Small Business Renewal Grant, offering financial support to eligible small businesses in Tacoma.

According to the City of Tacoma's website, the Community and Economic Development Department administers this program to help local businesses thrive and contribute to the livability of the city.

The grant funding covers repair costs for windows, doors and locks damaged after Jan. 1, 2022. Additionally, it provides funds for impact upgrades, including grease interceptors, safety upgrades, Americans with Disabilities Act access enhancements and more. 

The selection of awardees and grant amounts is based on project readiness and community impact, with preference given to projects in low- and very low-equity opportunity areas. 

Deirdre Patterson, an expert of the Community and Economic Development Department in the City of Tacoma, highlighted the challenges small businesses face, particularly in property crime and rising costs of tenant improvements. 

“Small businesses often face unique challenges that require targeted solutions. Since 2020, the Community and Economic Development Department has observed significant issues facing our small business community, particularly in the areas of property crime and the escalating costs of tenant improvements,” Patterson said. “Property crime, such as vandalism, directly impacts business operations and appearance, while rising costs for materials and labor make necessary upgrades and safety improvements less affordable.”

The Small Business Renewal Grant aims to alleviate these pressures by providing direct funding for repairs and improvements.

Patterson emphasized the importance of community support for small business renewal efforts. “It is crucial to recognize the foundational role that small businesses play in the vibrancy and economic health of Tacoma,” she said. “By supporting and investing in small business renewal efforts through these grants, we not only help individual businesses overcome specific adversities, we also enhance the overall attractiveness and functionality of our community spaces.”

Andrea Ornelas

Andrea Ornelas (she/her) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a third-year public relations major. When she’s not reporting, you can find her spending time with friends and family, reading and spending time outside. You can reach her at

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