In The Bellingham Business Journal’s coverage of the upcoming Port of Bellingham election, candidates running for commissioner seats were asked three questions involving port business and the local economy.
Part 2 features responses from Michael McAuley and Ken Bell, candidates for Commission District No. 2.
Part 1, which was posted on Monday, Aug. 5, features responses from Dan Robbins and Renata Kowalczyk, candidates for the Port of Bellingham Commission District No. 1.
The Q&As also appear in the August print edition of The Bellingham Business Journal.
The commissioners elected this year will soon face big decisions regarding Bellingham’s waterfront. Do you think plans for the Waterfront District are on the right track? And if you are elected, what would be your main focus as the planning moves forward?
The growth of the Bellingham International Airport has been a major economic story in recent years, and the facility’s latest expansion is nearing completion. But last year’s public meetings regarding the airport’s master plan process brought to light concerns from some residents who say increased jet traffic is creating more negatives than positives.
Do you think a “win-win” situation is possible here? And how should these competing interests be handled as activity at the airport continues?
Do you think the port has a good relationship with the local business community? And if you are elected, what are some specific things you will do to reach out to business owners in Bellingham and Whatcom County?
Commission District No. 2
The waterfront master plan is a suitable starting point but it does need some minor modifications so we can ensure any new construction is a high quality, long-lasting product that is ready to embrace future advancements, especially in energy and water use or reuse or a district wide heating system. My focus for the past two years has been on the working waterfront part of the plan. We have 130 miles of marine shoreline in Whatcom County but only a few thousand feet of access for our marine trades and marine dependent uses.
Rising to the top of my efforts has been: construction of Cornwall Beach Park with the potential for a new, recreational use boat ramp; securing appropriate tenants for the shipping terminal now that we’ve secured more land to support it; working with Western Washington University to reuse the Boardmill building or partner with a private firm that can make that building available to them now rather than some unspecified years from now; and working with the city of Bellingham to ensure we build a through street right away to connect Roeder Avenue to Cornwall Avenue.
My biggest challenge, however, has been to push our commission to redesign the Whatcom Waterway cleanup which is actually removing critical access facilities for our marine trades. This is one of those rare win-win scenarios we all hope to achieve. If successful, we can have the same cleanup without removing our only barge loading ramp and at the same time improve the shoreline for marine trades access with no new structures, over water coverage or improvements in the waterway itself. Investments such as this in our marine trades land will ensure a long life for regional marine trades businesses.
Regarding the actual “urban infill” part of the project, I have instructed all our staff and consultants that I am only interested in developers who see the value of our geography and can attract business interests, especially those businesses working in the broadly categorized Clean-Tech sector. These businesses can further diversify our economy without direct competition to our existing business sectors.
We have nearly finished more than $60 million in upgrades at Bellingham International Airport (BLI) that have given us a better runway, better terminal and some modest parking increases. However, the problems most associated with the airport do not, in my opinion, lend themselves to a win-win outcome. With more air traffic comes more ground traffic and much more noise from aircraft operations. We can engineer traffic solutions given enough money but noise pollution is incredibly difficult.
In the past six years we have seen a massive increase in leisure travel from BLI. We know that most of those passengers originate from outside Whatcom County, which tells me we have plenty of leisure travel service available for our local population, which is my first concern. What we don’t have are strong east-west hub connections and direct-to-Alaska flights, these would be modest increases in flights but would serve local business needs.
The noise problem with all of the operations’ increases is one I’ve been working on since my first days on the commission. In my first budget negotiations, I sought a dedicated fee of $0.25 per passenger that would be spent on off-airport noise mitigations. That effort was not supported by the commission. I then worked with our executive director to devise a plan that would deal with off-airport noise impacts, but that effort was lost when he was forced to resign. I am working with our new director to resurrect our plans. This is important locally because the Federal Aviation Administration only steps in to help on noise if we meet their criteria, but I believe their standards are too low. We shouldn’t hide behind them while claiming that if the FAA says it’s not too noisy, then our citizens have to suffer at the hands of the very government they put in place.
The airport has clearly enhanced our local economy, but the port should never stop at just building the economy. Just as we do in our marine landscapes, we must address the negative environmental side effects of growth and increased activity at our airport.
The port’s relationships are getting better. There was a time where the port seemed to be operating as its own entity outside the broader economy, almost as if it were its own private enterprise. With the hiring of Charlie Sheldon we began a turnaround based on his relationship building skills. Since then, our new executive director, Rob Fix, has carried that forward.
The port real estate staff has been accused in the past of hoarding leads, but now have a directive to aggressively share leads with the commercial real estate community. We also implemented Whatcom Prospector, a new website where any commercial real estate in the county can be marketed for free. The site gives prospective business interests from outside the county access to not just the properties but also demographic data for each city in the county.
The port also has an economic development division. Before I took my seat on the commission I had noticed that the port has two broad goals in its mission: transportation and economic development. What I found, however, is that there was only one person out of the 90 employees who was directly charged with economic development even though it was half of the mission. We have since added an additional person, whose position is partly funded by state grants, and I am hoping to add just one more person so that our economic development division is staffed at a level to bring real value to the people of Whatcom County.
With the expanded economic development division and our executive’s guidance, we have been able to focus the budget to better target opportunities rather than just blanket financial grants to organizations that couldn’t show job creation or retention. In the past our economic development person would work mostly with local, non-government organizations, but I pushed back on this shift of funding outside of the port with unverifiable results.
We now work closely with the county and the city of Bellingham with EDI funding. We have trimmed our grants to outside organizations but increased our staff time reaching out county businesses to determine gaps whether financial, regulatory, lack of infrastructure or even identifying missed opportunities.
One successful finding is that we have at least five companies in Whatcom County shipping their steel fabrications to Seattle for galvanizing. Until we sent staff out on its new mission nobody was aware of that, which means we may have the volume and an opportunity to develop our own galvanizing company here in Whatcom County.
We have also made incredible strides in our marine trades. For decades the marine trades people, especially our local fishermen, have felt that the port is not on their side. While we do have work to do, especially in the new C St. Terminal area with the Landings at Colony Wharf, we are moving in a positive direction. So much so that the port is being discussed favorably from Alaska to California.
The port’s relationships in many sectors has been strained in the past, but we have made some leadership changes, we will make more leadership changes and you should see the port doing a much better job of supporting local business than you may remember from the past.
The process for developing the waterfront is going as it should. It is vital that the port receive all information and the opinions of stakeholders prior to making any decisions on the waterfront. We can then make our decisions with that input in mind.
Our first priority must be to ensure that we have cleaned up any contamination left behind by G-P. The progress of that effort cannot be delayed or impaired in any way. The quality of life on the waterfront and the types of development we can initiate depend on the quality of the cleanup effort. Any delay in our implementation of our cleanup plan could jeopardize our agreements with the Department of Ecology and that would be devastating to the progress already made.
It would be my desire to see as much light industrial activity as possible on the waterfront. What a unique opportunity we have here in Whatcom County, an undeveloped industrial property with ocean access. You don’t get this kind of opportunity very often. We should be working toward making this asset work for us by creating the infrastructure necessary to attract job creators. We need to keep the customers we have prosperous. There are numerous industries already in place from Fairhaven through Colony Wharf and up to Blaine that need our support.
Win-win propositions are difficult to achieve. There is room for all parties to recognize that the impacts of their activities need to be mitigated. Realistically speaking, however, no one is ever satisfied in disputes like the one at the airport. The port can do everything in their power to mitigate noise by working with the airline industry and by creating sound buffers where possible.
We cannot, however, stifle the huge asset we have in our airport. This is an essential tool in our toolbox for introducing people to our county. We need to enhance the airport experience so that we can keep the traveling public in our area to participate in growing our economy.
A new parking structure is also a hot button item for me. We have limited close-in parking and yet we pay a shuttle service to transport our passengers from as far away as I-5. I would like to see a three-layered or four-layered parking structure that would accommodate rental car activity, shuttle services and minimize the distance travelers must go to access the terminal. The outlying areas could then be sold to private operators for development purposes.
The port’s relationship is good but not great. Progress on the waterfront has been too slow and the decisionmaking process too contentious for the business community to be comfortable. One of the reasons I am in this race is to facilitate a better environment for the port. Internally, we need stability and direction. Externally we need to sell the vision. We have a perfect opportunity with a new mayor and county executive, who have set the tone, to bring all Whatcom County parties together for a unified plan and to bring prosperity to our port properties.
Selling a vision is what I do best. As the owner of my own business, it has been important for me to make sure the vision is sound and that all parties are in agreement on our direction. Then we sell it. That is the plan for the port. Bring a big picture vision to the process, take away the impediments that would slow down the process and move forward.