I sat down with incumbent Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike to talk about his four years in office and the issues facing the city. Pike has received endorsements from state Sen. Kevin Ranker, Bellingham City Councilman Gene Knutson and the Bellingham/Whatcom County Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 106.
BBJ: What do you feel are the two most pressing issues facing the city of Bellingham?
Pike: I think one of the most pressing issues would be the Gateway Pacific Terminal. And the other is actually related to that: creating better employment opportunities. I think some people think that I’m taking opposing views on parallel issues, but I’m not. I actually think that there’s consistency there that’s important.
On Gateway Pacific, people have made the accusation that I had a rush to judgment, but the facts belie that. I was in favor of a multipurpose cargo facility as it was presented to me last summer. And then in October, the proponents informed me and others, which I appreciated, that coal would be part of the mix. At that point I started looking more carefully at what was going on because I had some concerns about that commodity.
Then in February, they came out with more definitive documentation of what their proposal was and they also came out with a signed agreement with Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the world. It was clear that the terminal was a coal only terminal for all intents and purposes. It was up to 48 million tons of coal to be shipped per year during the first 10 years of operation. Then after 10 years they’re going to build another 6-million-ton facility that might be used for other cargos, and it might not, depending on what the market dictates.
As I looked around at the experience of other ports, I found that there was very little opportunity to mix other cargos with coal because loading coal is a very dirty process. Certainly nobody wants coal dust in their wheat. And you don’t want coal mixing with potash or other commodities because it’s an impurity in those commodities.
So at that point I put out a series of questions that I thought were important to be answered in order to make an informed decision. I investigated those myself with the help of folks at the city and folks in the community, and I found that by just about any metric that you look at that facility under, it fails to meet the test of being a net positive for Bellingham and Whatcom County.
I think on the environmental side, those detriments are pretty clear. And it doesn’t really drive that many jobs for us in the long term. Using the proponent’s own numbers, it’s a couple hundred jobs.
So I’m not discounting a couple hundred jobs, but then you have to start looking at the opportunities that are lost or compromised because of this. For example, we’ve got a waterfront redevelopment that using the port’s analysis suggests we could develop about 13,000 jobs in the next couple decades.
While certainly over that timeframe we’re anticipating some increase in train traffic, the difference is it’s an evolutionary versus revolutionary change. We have planned to accommodate the growth in rail through the growth of infrastructure over time.
BBJ: What can the city do to help ensure that the business community here remains vibrant and varied?
Pike: That’s something I’ve been working on. One of the things I do on a regular basis, I go around the community and I meet with businesses large and small just to find out what is working and what isn’t working. I take that information to heart and take it back to City Hall and think about ways that we can use that information to change how the interface between businesses and the city works, so that businesses have a better experience.
Under my administration, we created the Office of Business Relations and Economic Development. Tara Sundin and Darby Galligan have been key in doing outreach to businesses. Businesses can use them if they are looking to land or expand in Bellingham. They’ll basically help them navigate their way through a process that even when it’s fairly optimal, still can be daunting to people that only deal with it once or twice.
We’ve also worked on changing the culture at City Hall and we’ve had some significant success with that. For example, the Center for Economic Vitality does surveys of customer satisfaction with the Permit Center. Those satisfaction ratings have just shot way up over the last four years, from a majority of folks being unhappy with their experience to an overwhelming majority feeling that they were treated professionally, appropriately and with courtesy. People found that the hurdles actually were not overwhelming, whereas four years ago when I took office, it was a much different environment. Some people stopped being willing to do business with the city because of the challenges that they found.
Having my office open to people if they’re having challenges is important. I’ve let people know that if they reach an impasse at City Hall that they feel is unfair, they can always come talk to me — and people have done that.
BBJ: What skills or experience do you have that makes you the better choice for mayor?
Pike: Among other skills, I’ve got the experience of running the city for the last four years and I’ve also got a background in public administration with training and education that is very specific to managing a large organization like this.
This is not a legislative process; this is an executive administrative process. So it’s not about creating policy, it’s about how you deliver on that policy. So during the most challenging time to manage the city since the Depression, the city has been really well managed. Our bond rating is stronger than it was when I took office. We’ve maintained our reserve targets for the general fund and other funds over that time.
In fact, this year we’re going to have a balanced budget at a time when the state is facing additional multibillion dollar cuts and the feds are looking at multitrillion dollar cuts. So I’ve got the experience of having that effective management.
Overall, in the basic management of the city, which is the core function of this job, I think the proof is in the pudding. We’ve got a balanced budget and we’ve maintained our core capacity. I’ve shown leadership on key issues like getting the restoration of seven-day transit service and also getting money through that process to put people to work on doing paving of our roads and expanding our bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
I’ve also shown leadership on the watershed. I’ve worked with Ecology (Washington State Department of Ecology) very diligently to try to reach accommodation on how we can move forward. We’ve put a lot of city resources into this — I’ve spent more during my administration than all the previous administration’s combined on preserving the watershed and trying to find solutions to phosphorus mitigation and removal.