There’s no doubt that Whatcom County citizens are excited about the Bellingham waterfront redevelopment. One question I hear again and again is, “how soon will I see some progress on the site?”
I can understand people asking that because, to date, so much of the work on The Waterfront District has been done by planners and engineers and architects. Somehow a group of professionals drawing street grids or measuring possible view corridors isn’t what people have in mind when they are looking for progress.
This year people are going to see dramatic progress in the form of demolition work on the old Georgia-Pacific site. Contractors will be removing all of the tissue mill buildings, which are right on the edge of downtown Bellingham. Since the port acquired the property in 2005, the port and G-P have demolished 17 buildings, 18 structures and removed eight large storage tanks.
High scrap-metal prices and a commitment to work toward keeping reusable materials out of landfills so far have resulted in 80 percent of the reusable machinery going to other mills, about 2,000 tons of scrap metal being sold, as well as 50,000 board feet of reclaimed lumber.
Yet even major demolition projects likely won’t satisfy most citizens’ interest in seeing new development happen on the waterfront. Thankfully there is one entire section of the property that the port believes can be redeveloped as an early action and can create new jobs and opportunities for the community. It won’t even require a zoning change.
The port has nearly completed a land-use plan for a 51-acre Marine Trades Area to be developed on the property adjacent to the new 450-slip Clean Ocean Marina site. This land-use plan will fold into any new plan that may be approved with The Waterfront District Master Plan proposal now being developed by the port. The new marina is presently in the permitting and engineering process and we believe it will functionally complement the new Marine Trades Area.
The port owns 34.5 acres of the Marine Trades Area, with the remaining property owned by the city (10 acres) and balance, privately owned.
Last fall the state legislature chose The Waterfront District as one of 11 Innovation Partnership Zones in the state and provided to the port a $1 million grant to launch this effort. Our Innovation Zone is the only one in the state with a focus on marine-related manufacturing together with a higher-education research partner (Western Washington University) and a technical-training partner (Bellingham Technical College). The ability of local marine businesses to partner with the university in the development of new materials and fabrication and with the technical college in training workers will give local businesses the opportunity to be more competitively positioned as industry leaders.
Under the plan the port is considering, the new Marine Trades Area would be anchored by a “Marine Trades Center” located within the five-acre former tissue warehouse.
The new Marine Trades Center building would accommodate a variety of water-related and marine industrial uses, and supporting businesses, including a “community marine services” facility at the southern end of the building facing the planned marina. It would also house a research and training facility used by Western and BTC under the Innovation Partnership Zone designation.
The focus of the center will be advanced marine manufacturing lab-to-market and research applications. An initial project will include assisting All American Marine, an existing port tenant, with innovative technology adaptations to a new fleet of low-wake, energy-efficient passenger ferry boats. The capital budget for the project is $1.45 million and will be completed by June 2009.
While other communities have had their shipyards and marine trades businesses close or move away from the waterfront, the port wants to take action now to ensure that these family-wage based-businesses remain and become a larger part of our local economy. Locally, we have been pleased to see the continued growth of All American Marine, Aluminum Chambered Boats and the Fairhaven Shipyard, just to name a few.
The marine trades industry continues to be a significant part of the local and regional economy. Core Whatcom County employment in marine industries is currently 500 to 800 jobs. In the Northwest Washington region (Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island counties) the marine trades industries generate $362 million and support over 4,000 direct and indirect jobs with a total payroll of $149 million. By creating these new partnerships and ensuring that there is land available, the port anticipates continued growth of this part of our local economy.
The Waterfront District will be many different things to many different people as the 220-acre area develops over the next 20 to 30 years. For some, it will be the new park or trail that they walk along while looking across the bay to Lummi Island. For others it will be classrooms and labs at Huxley College of the Environment. For still others it will be their home and their neighborhood. And for many people in our community, The Waterfront District will be where they work. Our goal is to create a balanced development that meets our citizen’s diverse requirements.
The new Marine Trades Area is just the first of many steps along the way.
Doug Smith has served on the Port Commission since 1994 and is the commission president this year.