Alaska Ferry continues as local landmark


The Alaska State Ferry will continue to call Bellingham its southern home now that the Port Commission signed a new 15-year agreement. This agreement came after a year of negotiations.

The ferry has become a local landmark. Every Friday, the Malaspina or the Columbia pulls alongside the dock at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven.

The day before the ferry arrives, a myriad of license plates turn up in Fairhaven as people from across the country begin arriving to ensure their place aboard the Marine Highway System. These people shop, dine and provision in our community before they head north.

Bellingham residents and visitors often go down to the port’s Cruise Terminal just to watch the commotion of such a big vessel preparing to travel the Inside Passage. Bellingham and Alaska have forged a strong relationship, in a large part because of the ferry’s coming to Fairhaven.

It wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, the ferry docked in downtown Seattle instead of Bellingham. Many people thought the ferry would always be in Seattle. But a group of people in Bellingham and Whatcom County had a different goal. They believed they could convince the state of Alaska that Bellingham was a better destination for the ferry. And the Port of Bellingham, the city, the county, business and tourism groups and hundreds of people in the community decided to lure the Alaska Marine Highway System away from Seattle.

Letters were written, numerous trips to Juneau were made, presentations were sent and a proposal was made by the Port of Bellingham that eventually won the Alaska State Ferry contract.

The port built the Bellingham Cruise Terminal right after winning the contract and the whole community turned out to welcome the first ferry in 1989.

Today between 25,000 and 30,000 passengers use the ferry out of Bellingham each year and a recent economic impact study by Martin and Associates noted that this operation generates an estimated $3 million a year in local revenue and accounts for direct employment of 32 people.

And that doesn’t factor in the impact of the ferry in establishing Bellingham/Whatcom County as a tourism destination or of strengthening the identity of Fairhaven back in its early days before it became the boomtown it is now. Plus thousands of people gather at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal each year for conferences, meetings, weddings and proms.

The Port of Bellingham measures the benefit of new business opportunities like the Alaska State Ferry in a variety of ways, both tangible and intangible. Certainly, we consider the revenues that will come to the port itself, but even more so, we consider the local jobs that will be created and the money that will come to our entire community from each new business opportunity we pursue. And we also think about how the new business will benefit our community’s well-being.

Last year we hired Martin and Associates to measure the overall economic impact of the Port of Bellingham, and we gathered some interesting information. More than 200 businesses operate on port property and $29.9 million in state and local taxes are generated from activity by Port of Bellingham operations.

This comprehensive study found that 4,084 direct jobs are created by the port and the business operations on our property, with over $168 million in payroll to people in our community. When you add the direct jobs to the indirect jobs created by the spending and impacts of the direct jobs, the Port of Bellingham’s impact is over 7,300 local jobs — or 10 percent of the local economy.

These difficult economic times have caused the Port of Bellingham to further sharpen its focus on local job creation. We know that businesses are struggling and we believe the best thing the port can do is continue to attract new business opportunities and to work with our existing businesses to help them weather this storm.

This year the port has held business focus groups with four key economic sectors in our community that we believe are poised for growth: marine trades, engineering and technology, adventure tourism equipment and value-added agriculture. The port is working with these industries to discover ways to help them expand and create new jobs and investments.

This focus on building our local economy is the main reason the port is competing with other maritime communities in our effort to convince NOAA to homeport its Pacific Maritime Operations Center in Bellingham at the port’s shipping terminal. Much like the Alaska Ferry effort, we have invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars crafting and refining a proposal that we believe will convince NOAA to relocate from Lake Union, where its current lease is ending.

We have had numerous meetings with NOAA officials in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and here in Bellingham in this effort. We have made it past the initial proposal review and remain in the running, along with our competitors in Newport, Ore., Port Angeles and Lake Union.

We believe this is exactly the right time to make our case. If we are successful, the homeporting of these six oceangoing research vessels and their upland maintenance and crew facilities will generate $19 million locally and will create 188 permanent full-time jobs. And, much like the Alaska Ferry decision, homeporting the NOAA Pacific Maritime Operations Center will establish Bellingham as a community with advanced maritime research and educational opportunities, will enhance our local marine trades businesses and will help jump-start development of The Waterfront District.

The port has been gratified by the community’s strong support for this effort and applauds the response from other local governments, business and tourism associations and many people who have sent letters and expressed their support for NOAA in Bellingham.

If we are successful, we know the NOAA ships on the Bellingham waterfront will become another landmark that distinguishes our community and reinforces our maritime heritage. And, we will all be able to celebrate the creation of new jobs for our community.


Jim Darling is the executive director of the Port of Bellingham. He can be reached at (360) 676-2500.


Related Stories