I recently had the pleasure of attending an enlightening presentation by Port of Bellingham Economic Development Director John Michener. I was trying to understand how a Canadian company that collects and processes scrap metal for recycling and trans-oceanic shipping could have suddenly set up shop at the Port. How had they been allowed to bring in mountains of rusting machine parts and pile them directly at the ends of “view corridors” that were supposed to be one of the glories of our new Bellingham Waterfront Plan? How had this happened at the same time a set of new and flexible Mixed Land Use regulations had been instituted, “…designed to transform (the Waterfront) from its long history of an active industrial site to a new smart-growth urban neighborhood…” What was the Port’s justification for signing a contract with this noisy, ugly, and possibly environmentally hazardous business?
In 2013, City Hall instituted a new zoning category called “Waterfront Mixed-Use.” A few years later, they adopted the “Urban Village” concept and included the Waterfront District. The goals for the Waterfront District, as stated in the 2018 Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan agreement, were to:
“Redevelop the industrial site into a mixed use, waterfront neighborhood providing opportunities for a range of uses and activities…” and “Create a vibrant area that integrates water-dependent uses and open space with new office, retail, services, institutional, and residential uses, and enhances the economy and livability of the area and livability of the area.”
In view of this agreement between the Port and the City, it seems particularly questionable the Port would sign a 15-year contract situating an environmental monstrosity directly in the sight-lines of new condominiums, the Boardmill Building hotel conversion, and Wayfare Park.
In my experience, when one has questions about an issue, there is no substitute for going to the source, which in this case is the Port officials who solicited and signed this contract. With minor variations, their answer to “Why?” has always been the same: “We have a mandate to increase revenue and jobs at the Port.
The “mandate” to which they refer apparently derives from language in Article VIII, section 8 of the Washington State Constitution authorizing “the use of public funds by port districts in such manner as the legislature may prescribe for industrial development or trade promotion".
But only the most self-serving, parochial interpretation could assume that this section directing “industrial development and trade promotion” should be achieved, solely or predominantly, through shipping. It is an especially implausible assumption since the Port participated in the Master Waterfront Renovation Plan, a plan that significantly reduced the heavy-industry credentials it had earned when it shipped to 600,000 tons of cargo annually. That was back in the “glory days” of the 1970s and ‘80s and was fueled almost entirely by Georgia-Pacific and Intalco. Now, no one wants to talk about those toxic legacies.
Is it possible the legislature actually singled out shipping activity as the most important engine of “industrial development or trade promotion,” for which a Port is allowed to use public funds? What about the myriad other undertakings within the remit of a port authority?
The Port of Bellingham is a major driving force of the economic growth and development of the county. But its power is exercised principally through the Economic Development Organization, separate from the shipping operations. And as one of 39 nationwide Associate Development Organizations (ADOs), it is largely funded by the Department of Commerce to stimulate economic growth.
This being the case, the role that shipping plays in the overall economic picture of our region should be informed by our sense of proportion and context rather than become a single-minded effort to increase revenue through one strategy.
Mr. Michener, the Port’s economic development director, made clear in his presentation that much of his effort over the years has involved attracting new companies and businesses to Whatcom County. In fact, the goal of the economic development arm of the Port of Bellingham is expressly “… to retain and attract livable wage jobs and to assist businesses, entrepreneurs, and local organizations to thrive.”
Mr. Michener’s projects have had considerable success.
Though he was unable to quantify the amount of revenue brought into the county by this program, in examining the various business models represented by firms that were successfully recruited to set up shop here, it seems intuitively clear that the economic benefit to Whatcom County has been substantial. Even more relevant for our purposes, the dollar value of these businesses must dwarf any projections of profit that might be realized exclusively by shipping from the Port. Even if it were possible to ratchet up tonnage to levels above those recorded in the 1970s and ‘80s, would we be willing to make a pact with the Devil in order to get there? Piles of rusting scrap metal? Why not? Bulk shipments of fertilizer? Bring ‘em on. What about coal?
The point is that the shipping terminal should not be regarded as a cash register open to any and every customer willing to sign a contract regardless of what they’re “selling” or whether their activities are compatible with the vision of the Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan.
View corridors that provide vistas of the bay, islands, and mountains that make our location uniquely beautiful are in danger of being brought up short by an industrial landscape one might have seen in the 1920s. This will be the result if our port commissioners are unable to understand a new role for the shipping terminal as part of the Waterfront Urban Village. The days when the environment was of little consequence and the only goal of the Port was to grow tonnage should be behind us.
There is enjoyment in having an active waterfront and watching large vessels come and go; and yes, increased shipping activity is desirable for job creation. But creating a beautiful waterfront, with its potential for attracting tourism and commerce is more desirable. It may, in fact, be a source of greater revenue: Granville Island vs. Anacortes is not exactly a Hobson’s Choice.
If this is a topic that interests you, please visit our website for more information and ways you can get involved in determining the future of our waterfront. Visit Save the Waterfront