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Sunday, October 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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CHANGE COMES TO LYNDEN

Seattle Times Business reporter

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. On it you shall not do any work; neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.

- Exodus 20

LYNDEN, Whatcom County--What is most striking about the Pioneer Museum's re-creation of this town's Main Street of a century ago is how closely it resembles downtown Lynden today.

Tidy, serious, quaint and small perfectly describe the community of both eras. Museum director Troy Luginbill sums it up with a single word: "Mayberry."

Despite how hard residents work to protect that image, every so often something comes along to threaten Lynden's deeply religious, Christian Reform heritage.

The most recent threat comes from a clash of history, cultures and economic vitality. At the center of the storm is Haggen, a privately owned Bellingham supermarket chain with a reputation for being a good neighbor.

Sixteen months ago, Lynden's Downtown Merchants Association recruited the company to build a full-service grocery store and pharmacy on city-owned property in historic downtown.

Dale Henley, Haggen's president and chief executive, took one look at the property, and the roads leading to and from it, and deemed it to be perfect.

Anxious to get off on the right foot, Henley readily agreed to live with the city's ban on Sunday liquor sales. But in the company's response to the city's request for proposals, Henley made it clear that if the city sold Haggen the land, the company would build a store that would be open on the Sabbath, typically the second-busiest shopping day of the week.

Nothing's been the same since.

There are eight Christian Reform churches in and around Lynden, a community of about 10,000 people. And given their influence, it would be easy to write all this off as a religious squabble. But the question of Haggen coming to town is more complicated than that.

Merchants in the historic district contend the Haggen store is needed to anchor the revival of a downtown that is dying, evidenced by the growing number of vacant storefronts on Front Street. The list of shuttered businesses is long and growing, and includes a JC Penney store, a car dealership, a pharmacy and, just last month, Alsum & Bode furniture store.

Opponents of the Haggen proposal, who agree downtown Lynden is struggling economically, counter that a full-service supermarket will take business away from existing merchants. They also believe Sunday sales will shatter the peace and quiet of a farming community where, traditionally, fields don't get tended and lawns don't get mowed on that day of rest.

Those objections might not carry as much weight were it not for the fact that the land originally was intended for Lynden's government buildings and a new county library.

So contentious is this debate that the town's weekly newspaper, the Lynden Tribune, has avoided taking an editorial stand. Ditto for Concerned Christian Citizens of Whatcom County, which has members and directors on both sides of the issue.

Within the past four months, the City Council has gone both ways, last month finally voting to accept Haggen's proposal to purchase the land for $3.8 million and relocate the library on nearby property owned by Peoples Bank.

And then there is Mayor Daryl Brennick, who has made so many conflicting statements that nobody's quite sure where he stands from week to week.

Last month, the council gave Haggen until March to assemble the parcels of land for Lynden's new library. Haggen says it can do that but wants assurances from the city that it will approve the street vacations and variances needed before it can begin construction. That's something Brennick is unwilling to guarantee. What he wants is for Haggen to assemble and convey the land to the city with no strings attached.

Under Brennick's scenario, Haggen could wind up owning a big chunk of downtown Lynden with no promise it could open a seven-day-a-week store.

"This has caused our little community to struggle with its own cherished values," says Gary Hardaway, executive director of Concerned Christian Citizens, a conservative political-action committee based here. "How do we balance the economic vitality of the downtown with the tradition of Sunday closure, community rest and the urgent need for a centrally located library. Everyone wants each of those important values undamaged. Everyone wants what's best for Lynden. We're just struggling with what that is."

The struggle has Lynden residents edgy to the point of whispering uncharacteristically snide allegations regarding each other's motives and even drinking habits. Dislike and hatred are too strong of emotions to attach to their feelings. After all, devout Christians are on every side of this debate.

"Let's just say it has caused people to be irritated with each other," says life-long resident Lesa Starkenburg-Kroontje, the Lynden attorney Haggen hired to represent its interests here.

East and west

There are really two Lyndens. There is the historic downtown part of the city that was settled in the 1870s by Baptists, Methodists and three Dutchmen who, legend has it, wrote back to their families in the Midwest that Lynden was "just like home." They were right and by the early 1920s the Dutch were the majority. Soon, Lynden stores closed on Sundays, reflecting the Christian Reform belief that one day of the week should be set aside for rest.

Then there is west Lynden. Born of and nurtured by the state highway system and adopted by Lynden, the city annexed businesses along the Guide Meridian--Highway 539 to outsiders--during the 1990s. During that period of annexations, the city's population dramatically increased in size, adding business owners and residents who don't necessarily share the Dutch appreciation for a quiet Sunday.

The two parts of the city are viewed quite differently. Though they adhere to Lynden's ban on Sunday liquor sales, businesses on the Guide remain open on Sundays. When Safeway recently applied for a conditional-use permit to build a store that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no one testified against the application.

Downtown is viewed as sacred ground by many and remains closed on Sundays, much as it has been since the Great Depression. Back in the early 1990s, after a golf course just north of downtown was completed and opened on Sundays, there was an attempt to impose closure with Sunday Blue Laws.

To forestall a new city ordinance, then-Mayor Egbert Maas asked the council to adopt a resolution urging that downtown businesses remain closed on the Sabbath. With the exception of a few antique stores, it worked. A person could starve to death in historic Lynden on Sunday before they could buy a meal at one of downtown's many restaurants.

"The Lord has blessed us abundantly over the years and one of the reasons was we kept Sunday special," says Maas, who is leading the effort to prevent Haggen from building on the land he assembled to be a civic center.

"People like the quietness of a closed Sunday. The town is changing but we're still trying to keep the center of town as a restful place on Sunday."

The tradition of Sunday closure is a mixed blessing. Store owners admit they like the idea of taking the day off and wish business owners elsewhere felt the same. At the same time, those same business owners acknowledge the downside of a tourist town being closed on one of the two days each week outsiders tend to visit.

And they are especially appalled that some of the same people who support keeping downtown closed on Sundays go outside the city to shop on the Sabbath.

"Traffic in Lynden has gotten less and less," says furniture-store owner Bill Bode, who is in the process of retiring and closing his store on Front Street. "Being on this street for 30 years and seeing it go down and down, this town is dying. And now we have an opportunity to get one of the classiest stores on the West Coast, and some people want to turn them down because of a Sunday tradition of closure?"

During his recent going-out-of-business sale, Bode opened his furniture store on a dozen Sunday afternoons after church let out and had 12 of the busiest days he's ever had.

"People say we're doing this for the almighty dollar, but this is survival time," says Bode, a life-long Lynden resident who is considered something of a town rebel because he converted from Christian Reform to the Baptist church when he married his wife 30 years ago.

According to the Downtown Merchants Association, there is overwhelming support for the Haggen store among its 120 members.

In most places, that kind of clout would virtually assure the support of elected officials.

But not here, where Reform church leaders say individual rest is impossible if the entire community doesn't take a break from the week's chores.

"If we don't all rest together there ain't no one going to rest separately," says the Rev. Ken Koeman, senior pastor at the Sunlight Community Christian Reform Church. "If some people are very busy engaging in their business activity, it does change the character of the community. I liken it to being on a red-eye flight, with the whole plane trying to get some sleep and one baby is crying. Rest is communal in nature."

Plan for civic center

While Koeman's argument is based in scripture, there are other, more secular reasons being thrown about for rejecting Haggen's proposal for this particular part of downtown.

A decade ago, over the objection of voters, then-Mayor Maas assembled the property, hoping that one day Lynden's citizens would see the wisdom of having their library, city hall and public-safety buildings all in the same square blocks of the city.

They never did. Twice, they rejected a bond issue to build a new city hall.

They did, however, overwhelmingly approve construction of a new, bigger library that would have covered just a small parcel of the land the city owned.

With nothing to put on the rest of the land, and with business leaders clamoring for something to revitalize the economy, the City Council put it up for sale and asked for proposals.

"It was all set for a civic center," says Maas, who heads a small band of senior citizens, all men, who are leading the opposition to Haggen. "Lynden is in need of a new library, a new city hall, a larger fire station, a police department. Every city would love to be able to have all that in a civic center. We worked toward that and they (the council) blew the whole plan. That's what's so disappointing."

Despite its insistence on opening Sundays, Haggen's proposal was chosen as the best. It adds up to a $15 million to $20 million investment in Lynden. The company already owns several small parcels of land in the area and says it is committed to working out a deal with Peoples Bank to acquire the other parcels needed to assemble the land for a new library site just two blocks from where it was to have been built.

City officials say the $3.8 million Haggen has offered for the land more than covers the cost of replacing the public buildings that would be razed to make room for the new supermarket. Haggen has also offered assurances it will be a good neighbor, as it has been in the other Pacific Northwest communities into which it has expanded. When open, the store would employee as many as 190 people. Even without a store, Haggen already is a major advertiser in town, and has contributed money to various causes.

None of that is good enough for opponents.

"It would just be another store--the fourth grocery store in a city of 10,000 people," says Maas, who sees his vision for the city slipping away.

Just how long it will take for all this to get settled isn't clear.

Lynden officials want to start construction on a new library by spring, and with that deadline in mind, Haggen has been given until March to assemble the site. Haggen officials, who worked eight years to put a grocery store in Edmonds, say they're in Lynden for the long haul, but won't compromise to build a store that won't succeed.

"I'm a good listener," says Henley. "Part of the community wants the (Sunday) quietness to continue. Those people will lose something. We will have a negative impact on that aspect of it. But the worst thing would be if we compromised and the store didn't make it and Lynden had another empty building downtown."

Robert T. Nelson's phone message number is 206-464-2996. His e-mail address is rnelson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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