Cooperation crucial to success of New Whatcom

   The community effort to revitalize nearly 250 acres of waterfront property is gaining national attention for its innovative approach. Nearly every month, the Port of Bellingham gets requests to speak at regional and national conferences about the work that is under way.
    Generally, Port leadership is too busy working on the project to accept the offers. But it is interesting to learn just how unusual our community approach is compared to what goes on in other areas.
    A bit of background: A year ago, the Port of Bellingham’s Board of Commissioners voted to acquire 137 acres of waterfront property from the Georgia-Pacific Corporation in exchange for conducting a specified environmental cleanup of the property and the adjacent waterway.
    When the commission approved this acquisition, it also approved the Port and Georgia-Pacific purchasing a one-of-a-kind environmental-cost- capping insurance policy. G-P paid the multimillion dollar premium and the Port agreed to prepay 50 percent of the anticipated cleanup cost. By aligning our interests during the nearly year-long land negotiation, the Port and G-P became partners in the cleanup and redevelopment and protected the community from rising cleanup costs. G-P also agreed to conduct about $6 million worth of site demolition for the Port. This type of partnership is rare.
    Equally rare is the partnership between the Port and the City of Bellingham. Generally around the state, tales are told of the disputes between ports and cities. But in Whatcom County, we have chosen a different route. Before the commission approved the acquisition, the City agreed to pay for the utilities, infrastructure, parks and trails on the G-P property and the Port agreed to pay for the environmental cleanup and the waterside infrastructure such as docks and bulkheads.
    In that same agreement, the Port and City pledged to combine their state and federal lobbying efforts, focusing their attention on gaining outside funding for this important community project. By the end of 2005, $35 million in state and federal money had either been received or pledged to this project. That team effort saved the community from covering all of those costs with local dollars.
    The Port and City also have teamed up to jointly create a 250-acre site master plan, as well as a branding and marketing plan to ensure the success of the 20-year project. This may be the norm in Bellingham, but this level of cooperation, isn’t happening anywhere else in the state.
    Along those same lines, the Port is working with Western Washington University to clarify WWU’s role in the project. Already WWU has said it plans to have a portion of its campus on the waterfront site. The Port and WWU are jointly funding the development of a plan for this project.
    The Port also has entered into agreements with the Bellingham-Whatcom Housing Authority, the Department of Natural Resources and the Lummi Nation. All of these agreements are initial steps along the way of forging long-term partnerships and developments.
    Meanwhile the Port and the Department of Ecology are co-managing the Bellingham Bay Pilot Project, an innovative approach to developing a baywide cleanup strategy through cooperative involvement by all parties instead of through legal wrangling. The Port and Ecology even share a staff person who is charged with providing the community information about the cleanup projects.
    From the beginning, the Port Commission recognized that the waterfront redevelopment was too big of a project to do successfully without partners. In addition to sharing the expenses and the risks, the Port also has discovered that partnerships that are based on shared goals forge strong relationships that will be essential to bring success and investment to our waterfront.
    Our community has a vision of a revitalized waterfront that provides new waterfront access, jobs, housing and opportunities. By working together we can make that vision a reality.

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