Australian boat builder, Alluminum Boats America (ABA), has decided not to lease from the Port of Bellingham and instead locate in Anacortes. At the port meeting on April 3, the commission approved a long term lease with ABA to manufacture boats at the old Uniflite plant on the Fairhaven waterfront.
ABA made a considerable presentation about their company to the commissioners, and port officials expressed how pleased they were that ABA had chosen Bellingham for their United States manufacturing. However, the lease had a 30 day termination clause and ABA has now told the port it is terminating. The reason, according to a reliable source close to the port, is there is no way to launch new boats from the facility. The old Uniflite Tami Lift dock has silted over and the port has chosen to not dredge it.
The parent company in Australia builds large boats, such as ferries and tour boats, ranging in size from 40 feet to well over 100 feet, carrying from 40 to 400 people. They mostly build catamarans, and their new U.S. base will help their expansion into American markets. They plan to hire up to 25 workers during their first year of operation in the U.S. These jobs will now go to Anacortes.
For launching their new boats, the port had suggested ABA use the launch at Fairhaven Shipyards, further down Harris Avenue. ABA decided that was too difficult, expensive, and impractical.
Following are some opinions with further facts.
The April 3 port meeting saw a packed meeting room as many people came to protest the firing of Charlie Sheldon, the port's executive director. Sheldon had been focused on bringing jobs to Bellingham and had overseen the recruitment of ABA. Those of us attending the port meeting that afternoon witnessed the hoopla as the commissioners signed the lease; there was no hint it was all tentative with the possibility of failure. That has now occured. The launching challenge may have been solved had Sheldon stayed on the job. We will never know.
The present launch dock has been silting up from Padden Creek for decades. It has not been dredged for environmental reasons. However, for over 20 years, the port has had the option to move the dock further from Padden Creek and many, including this writer, have urged the commissioners to do just that. We do know commissioner Scott Walker would like to see an end of boat manufacturing at that site in order to build either a Granville-Island-style shopping mall or a convention center. As such, by not making the property suitable for boat building, the land will remain under-utilized and prime for other development.
For myself, this is further reason to expand the port commission from 3 to 5 members. We need a better decision making group. We need to break this troika and allow a more public process. Commissions of three are historically dominated by one member. They are good for getting a specific mission accomplished, but not for long-term community decision making. By expanding to 5, we bring open and real discussion to port decisions and better representation of the voters to decisions that will greatly impact the future of Bellingham and Whatcom County. Scott Walker's bullying domination of the commission needs to end.
Oh, one more zinger. The Port of Anacortes has 5 commissioners.