By Lance Henderson
The Port of Bellingham has many assets. Some are property, others are facilities, but one of its strongest assets has been its executive director, Jim Darling.
For the past 18 years, Darling has been a fixture at the Port of Bellingham. He spent three years as director of operations and the last 15 years as executive director. He worked to maintain the port’s assets and cultivate a professional team who could handle a diverse group of forward-looking projects such as expansion of the Bellingham International Airport and the acquisition of the former Georgia-Pacific site, which kicked off the planning of an ambitious community waterfront development.
But on May 26, Darling announced that he would resign effective July 10 and take a position as vice president and principal with Northwest-based Maul Foster & Alongi Inc., a full-service planning, environmental, engineering, landscape architecture, GIS and sustainability consulting firm. Later, port commissioners unanimously named Fred Seeger, port facilities director with 15 years experience at the port, as interim port director while port commissioners conduct a nationwide search for Darling’s replacement.
In light of this major change at the Port of Bellingham, The Bellingham Business Journal sat down with the soon-to-be former port director to get his views on the past, present and future of the port.
The Bellingham Business Journal: What were some of your major experiences before moving to Bellingham?
Jim Darling: Prior to becoming the port director, I was public works director in Urbana, a municipality in central Illinois and home to University of Illinois. I went to school in Illinois and started in public works construction at a pretty young age and was in the field most of the time. I progressed into the department and when I was 28, I became the public works director and I was there for about 20 years until I came here.
BBJ: What personal goals and mindset did you have when you first became director of the Port of Bellingham?
JD: I have family here in the Northwest and my wife went to high school and grew up in the Portland area, so she has family here as well. I had kids a little bit later in life and we wanted to get back to the Northwest, but we wanted to move before the kids were in school. So we moved here when a job opportunity came up. We moved when the kids were in preschool and my time frame was to get the kids all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade in one community. That was my goal at the time when I came — my personal goal.
BBJ: What professional goals did you have?
JD: At that time, there were two big things we needed to do at the port: First, to maintain the facilities and the assets better than I think they had been maintained. As public investments, we are trustees of those. There is an unspoken rule, especially in public organizations, that you want to leave the place in better condition than when you came in. We also, at the time, didn’t have systems in place to make logical decisions, so we put a number of systems in place, including long-term budgeting and forecast and financial management, which I think is the biggest one.
BBJ: You are credited with putting together a great team here at the port. What did you look for in port employees and how did you build that team?
JD: We did it gradually. Some people come in and make wholesale changes, but we didn’t do that. We were able to promote people who had the right skill set to be promoted and we went out and looked for the right fit. We always did very competitive searches and were very careful about who we retained. As a result of that, we have great stability and great people. There is a strong core of people here and people pick up on that when they come.
BBJ: What would you say has been your greatest success during your time at the port?
JD: I think it has been building up the capacity of the organization to take on a number of projects. We can talk about the projects, but it is really building the capacity to do those things and having the tools to take on projects. Everything seems to get overshadowed by the waterfront, but the reality is that we have expanded air service, rebuilt the marinas. We attracted Amtrak and built a new train station, but you can’t do any of that without having the right tools. That’s the foundation for big success and I think all the things we have accomplished were because of that.
BBJ: Was there anything you feel you didn’t accomplish during your time?
JD: No, I don’t think so. We were able to do just about everything. With commission leadership and them setting the direction, we were able to do it all. I mean, obviously, on the waterfront, I wish we were further along, but the reality is that those projects take a while. It is in a position now to move forward.
BBJ: Why is now the right time for you to move on?
JD: First of all, my kids are gone and in college. I got a good opportunity to stay in Bellingham and work with this new firm and have a piece of the ownership of this company. They do the kind of work that I like to do, which is property development and environmental projects. They are a Northwest-based company and it was a really good opportunity. When those come along, you need to take advantage of them. And the timing was right with the projects here. We just had a recent agreement with the city on the waterfront and we solidified the Alaska Ferry, so it was a good time.
BBJ: Is there anything that you are really going to miss?
JD: It’s the people that I work with. I have always liked doing community projects, and with this new opportunity I will be doing community projects as well in the private sector. It’s really the people, though. You know after 18 years, it’s tough. It’s a tough thing to leave.
BBJ: Is there anything you won’t miss at all?
JD: Being in the public sector is tough. There is a lot of scrutiny and I don’t think I will miss that. I won’t miss seeing my salary in the newspaper.
BBJ: What do you think will be the major issues facing the incoming port director?
JD: I think managing the growth at the airport will be one, although we have plans in place to accommodate that. I also think, on the waterfront, getting the property to market sooner rather than later will obviously be a challenge.
BBJ: What advice would you give to the next port director?
JD: I think the watchwords are that we are simply trustees of public assets for a short period of time. The history of the port will span 90 years pretty soon and they should leave the place in better shape than they found it. Here at the port or anywhere, I think that is good guidance.