CH2M Hill’s recent acquisition of VECO USA Inc. will allow the company’s Bellingham office to hire up to 250 new employees in the coming years, and now those employees may get a new waterfront office.
If all goes as planned, CH2M Hill will expand its Bellingham office by taking up 45,000 to 50,000 square feet of developer David Ebenal’s proposed Bellwether Gate project on the Bellwether Peninsula.
The engineering company has signed a letter of understanding with Bellwether Gate LLC, which has the same principals as Ebenal Co., including Ebenal, and is currently working on a more detailed contract to occupy the space, said CH2M Hill president Ken Marzocco.
Marzocco said CH2M Hill, which currently has about 250 Bellingham employees, has outgrown its office at 1313 Bay Street after 20 years of operation there, and is also occupying the second floor of the Crown Plaza building. If the company located to the waterfront, it would likely vacate in the Crown Plaza building and may or may not maintain its Bay Street office, Marzocco said.
The new offices are expected to accommodate about 200 to 250 employees.
Marzocco said the project would need to be ready for occupancy in about two years in order for the company to move there.
“The sooner, the better,” he said.
The company is currently hiring for a dozen positions, and Marzocco said he expects to continue hiring about a dozen employees per month.
While Marzocco said it makes more sense for his company to expand outside the city limits to avoid Bellingham’s business and occupation tax, he was attracted to the Bellwether Gate project because of its proximity to the Waterfront District redevelopment.
“From a purely economic position, it would be smart for us to move north of town and not pay the tax,” he said.
Marzocco said his company has paid well over $1 million in B and O taxes in the past 10 years, which makes it hard to stay competitive with other engineering companies that don’t pay any city or state business taxes.
“We made a commitment years and years ago to be in the downtown core, so now we’d like to stay in the downtown area and be a part of the waterfront,” he said.
The contract between CH2M Hill and Bellwether Gate depends on approval of a long-term lease agreement between Bellwether Gate LLC and the Port of Bellingham. The lease would stipulate that Bellwether Gate would pay nearly $3 million for an 80-year lease on the land and would construct four new mixed-use buildings ranging from three to four stories.
However, before the lease can be approved, the city of Bellingham would need to sign off on a 50-foot building height for the project’s tallest building (the one to be occupied by CH2M Hill) because the area’s original planned contract from 1998 only included a height limit of 35 feet, said Ebenal and Shirley McFearin, the port’s real estate development manager. The nearby Hotel Bellwether is 54 feet high and the Bellwether Gate development accounts for view corridors, Ebenal said.
City planner Steve Sundin said most of the public comment letters he has received about the Bellwether Gate project express concern about its height and effect on views. He said that because of the existing buildings at the end of the peninsula, the Bellwether Gate project wouldn’t impact views much, except for some residents who live along W. Holly St. who might lose views of certain features, he said. But there is no total view blockage.
The city’s planning commission will make a recommendation on the height issue to the city’s planning director after a commission meeting scheduled for Nov. 29.
If the height limit is approved by the city’s planning director, McFearin said she would hope to have the lease agreement between the port and Ebenal approved in mid-December, and Ebenal said he’d like to begin construction in spring 2008.