Looking Back: The top trends in Bellingham's 2012 business news

Coal trains and airplanes. Both were decisive elements of local business and economic news this year.

With an expansion of what is now the third-busiest airport in the state and the continuing controversy over the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point—which would be one of the largest export facilities in the country—next year should be an interesting one for business in Whatcom County.

While this list is by no means comprehensive, many of these trends and events are sure to influence local movers and shakers in 2013.

Debate on the Gateway Pacific Terminal amplifies

Just a few weeks remain in the public comment period for the Gateway Pacific Terminal’s “scoping” process, which ends on Jan. 21. Thousands of people have attended meetings across the region to discuss which elements should be part of an Environmental Impact Statement to be prepared for the project by officials from Whatcom County, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The public forums have brought out multiple sides in the debate over the project.

Backers of the terminal, which is proposed by the SSA Marine company of Seattle, bill the project as a harbinger of economic expansion for Whatcom County, with builders promising new jobs, tax revenue and tax savings. Critics, however, are troubled by various negative impacts the terminal could cause, including increased pollution, choked rail crossings and benefits that might never materialize.

Related articles:
Gateway Terminal fans tout benefits, while critics concerned with costs
Job Claims: Backers of proposed coal terminal say local employment would surge
Train, or Pain?: As Cherry Point plans move forward, critics question impact on local rural lands

Bellingham International Airport expansion continues

Bellingham’s once-sleepy airport has grown faster than almost any other jet hub of similar size in the nation. More than half a million passengers now travel through its terminal annually, with the bulk of them coming from Canada.

The increase in jet traffic has been a major concern for people living in the rural areas north of the airport. Some believe if the noise from passing planes continues, the quality of life in their neighborhoods will be forever changed.

For other residents, a busier airport is a welcome addition that brings new travel destinations and millions of dollars in economic benefits.

The Port of Bellingham is still in the midst of a master plan updating process for the airport, the first time the transportation center’s future growth has been earnestly looked at in almost a decade. In 2013, the port also plans to put the final touches on a multiyear, $38.5 million passenger terminal expansion.

Related articles:
Jets bring woes for neighbors of Bellingham’s airport
Will a growing Bellingham International Airport boost commerce?

Port of Bellingham’s executive director resigns

Put lightly, the departure of Charlie Sheldon from the port’s top spot in April was not amicable.

Sheldon’s two-year tenure at the agency was stained with spats with port staff and elected commissioners. Yet the former director enjoyed support from some local residents and business owners, particularly in the commercial fishing industry.

Spurred in part by Sheldon’s resignation, a group of citizens mounted a failed effort in the 2012 general election to expand the port’s board of commissioners from three members to five.

Rob Fix, previously the port’s deputy director and chief financial officer, was selected in November to succeed Sheldon.

Related articles:
Rob Fix picked as Port of Bellingham’s new executive director
Port of Bellingham executive director Charlie Sheldon resigns position

Waterfront District plans develop

The central waterfront site formerly home to a Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill has been a demolition zone in recent years; the landscape of the property changed as a former bleach plant, pulp storage warehouse and pulp screening room were dismantled.

With several more environmental cleanup projects still ahead, the port and the city of Bellingham announced in December that a draft sub-area plan for a redeveloped Waterfront District has been completed. Over the next year, city planning officials and elected leaders will pour through the plan and related regulatory documents, setting the scope for the future of the property that might one day include new light-industrial, commercial and residential development.

Also on the waterfront, the old Granary Building that was originally built in the 1920s but has fallen to neglect and disrepair in recent years has promising signs it might receive new life. Developers and historical preservationists helped persuade the port commission to hold off plans to scrap the structure and instead seek proposals for its rehabilitation.

Related articles:
Waterfront District plans ready to enter regulatory review
Developers have $5M plan to save waterfront Granary Building
Tumbling Down: Old Georgia-Pacific buildings razed to make way for waterfront development

Canadian shoppers fuel retail sales, create controversy

Like it or not, Canadian money is an important component of Whatcom County’s economy. While many business owners welcome shoppers from the north, the crowds of Canucks flowing into Bellingham’s big-box stores, gas stations and its airport have tested the patience of some local shoppers.

Widespread media attention focused on Whatcom County after a Facebook page urging special “Americans-only” shopping days at the local Costco garnered thousands of supporters this past summer. Yet local politicians and business leaders continue to point out that despite the grumblings of some in the community, Bellingham and Whatcom County see significant benefits from Canadian shoppers.

Related articles:
Gaining Altitude: Bellingham Airport expansion driven by heavy traffic from Canadian travelers
New program helps Whatcom County retailers accept Canadian debit cards

Future vision expands in downtown Bellingham

At the same time a major planning process takes shape on Bellingham’s central waterfront, local officials, stakeholders and residents are hoping to finish a new sub-area plan proposal for the city’s downtown core within the next several months.

City officials are in the middle of a planning process, called “myDowntown,” that seeks to identify what is going well in the district and what could present barriers for future growth. With strong historical elements and an array of locally owned businesses, Bellingham’s downtown area is seen by many as a gem of a district.

But downtown elements in need of improvement, as noted by a recent survey of business owners, developers and residents, include better parking, better relationships between business owners and city officials and workable solutions to continuing problems with loitering, vagrancy and other street crime.

Related article:
City officials, stakeholders assessing future of Bellingham’s central district

Voters privatize and legalize 

Washington state blazed a new trail this year, as voters in the 2012 general election approved a measure that legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana and directs the state Liquor Control Board to set up a system that will allow licensed sales of the once-illicit substance. Yet questions remain over what the federal response will be to decriminalization, as pot remains illegal under U.S. law.

Also, the voter-approved initiative to privatize liquor sales took effect last summer. While recent numbers show consumer purchases of spirits increased during the first four months of the new private system, higher retail prices have upset some buyers. Other residents express concerns over the negative impacts the increased availability of booze might bear.

Related articles:
State says full year needed to create legal marijuana framework
State liquor sales rose during initial months of privatization

Unemployment falls in Whatcom County

Although thousands of people are still out of work, the overall job picture in Whatcom County improved through 2012. The most recent unemployment estimate from November put the county’s jobless rate at 6.5 percent. It’s the third straight month the local rate has dipped below 7 percent, something not seen since 2008.

Related article:
Whatcom’s unemployment at 6.5 percent in November

Bellingham Shipping Terminal gets new life

New activity came ashore at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal after two manufacturing companies working with Shell Oil Co. chose the facility to build and base an oil-spill containment dome, called the Arctic Challenger.

Bellingham’s waterfront shipping terminal used to export nearly 500,000 tons of material annually. But since the Georgia-Pacific paper mill closed and the Alcoa aluminum smelter made production cuts years ago, the shipping base has seen little business.

Unfortunately for Shell, the Challenger has been plagued with problems since a botched sea test in September left it limping back to port with unspecified damages. The vessel remains under repair at the terminal. Shell scrapped its plans for the year to begin new oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

Related articles:
Builders of oil-containment dome now need permits
Superior Energy Services enters five-year port lease at Bellingham Shipping Terminal
A Terminal Reborn: Greenberry Industrial, Superior Energy bring new life to the Bellingham waterfront

Health industry prepares for change 

Changes to health care laws have been on many business owners’ minds recently, but shifts in the health care industry itself are expected to drive news cycles in the coming years. Health experts and executives expect new mergers of hospitals and health systems, an increased use of technology and electronic medical records and a need for more nursing practitioners.

The health care organization PeaceHealth, which is Whatcom County’s largest employer, announced plans earlier this year to enter a partnership with Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives, which will create a health alliance with nearly 26,000 employees, 950 doctors and close to $4 billion in annual revenue.

Related articles:
Health professionals and educators face industry-wide changes
With new partner, PeaceHealth moves to control costs

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805. 

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