On a night in late October, the Port of Bellingham held a special public forum at the city’s cruise terminal in Fairhaven to introduce three finalists for the open executive director’s position. Seven months earlier, Charlie Sheldon, the agency’s former leader, left in a pall of controversy, tendering his resignation to the elected port commission after tangles with Scott Walker, the commission’s president.
Rob Fix was not one of the three in the front of the room at the cruise terminal that night.
But after the port commission’s initial choice for Sheldon’s successor—Jonathan Daniels, executive director of the Port of Oswego, N.Y.—withdrew from consideration, commissioners told Fix: He was their man.
The announcement was surprising to observers and to Fix himself, who took on the role of interim executive director while the search for a permanent replacement wore on. The self-described “numbers guy” had served as chief financial officer and deputy director for the port since 2008.
At various points after Sheldon left, it was clear Fix was not being considered for the executive role. But in statements after the decision was announced, commissioners noted Fix’s success as interim executive, particularly in negotiating a major waterfront land-ownership swap with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.
Now in the director’s chair, Fix starts the job with a long to-do list. The Port of Bellingham has capital projects in progress on several fronts, including a multiyear, multimillion dollar airport terminal expansion and a major cleanup effort in the Whatcom Waterway near the city’s central waterfront. The agency has also inherited significant elements of the region’s economic growth and planning. With a local economy still pulling itself out of recession, the financial stakes are high, but so is the potential.
The local economy
BBJ: How do you judge the health of business and industry in Whatcom County right now?
Fix: I think it’s recovering. I’m not a business owner, so I’m sure there are some out there that are still suffering. But we’re seeing a lot of activity.
We’re getting a lot of real estate inquiries, and a lot of manufacturing-based stuff. I think we’re on the upswing, so that’s the good news. The port itself is spending a lot of money right now between several different capital projects, and that is definitely helping contractors and electricians. I’m positive. I’m bullish on the economy. I think we’re in a good spot.
BBJ: What is the port doing to help the local economy?
Fix: Well the biggest thing is the airport. I think that’s the single biggest thing we do to drive the economy, and right now there’s a $100,000-a-day construction project going on out there. That will obviously end, but the airport is an economic driver. It brings business folks into the community, it allows them to have a local sales force and brings them in and out of the community, and lets customers come in.
It’s just an economic driver, on the whole. Transportation at that airport, I believe, is the single biggest thing we can do to help local businesses.
BBJ: How do you see the airport evolving over the next several years?
Fix: We have to finish our terminal expansion. We issued some bonds to finance the terminal expansion in 2010, and we’re now in the latter stages of that project.
You’re going to see a new baggage claim come online sometime around March or April. About a year ago, you saw the lobby holding area open up, and the baggage claim will kind of match that in both theme and size.
Following that, in about a year from now, you’ll see a new ticketing area open up. That’s the last phase, and when we finish the terminal expansion, we’ll consider that project closed and done.
If the airport will require any growth after that remains to be seen. The port’s commissioners have directed us to go through a master planning process with the airport, and staff is doing that right now.
We can’t control where the planes take off or land. We can’t turn them away, we can’t refuse them. But we can control where the port’s investments go.
BBJ: Where do you think those investments should go?
Fix: Well right now, they’re going into the terminal.
In the future, that will be up to the master planning process and the port commission’s direction. Those won’t be decisions I make, those will be decision the elected leaders make and then give me direction on how to proceed.
They have given direction during this master planning process that they want slow, managed growth. What that means needs to be defined. It still needs to be worked out in the details.
BBJ: What is your response to people who are upset with the increased jet traffic and are not happy the airport has expanded?
Fix: I recognize that there are folks this community who are affected by the airport and by the noise. There is a part of this community that feels the noise and the negatives outweigh the benefits. But there’s also other parts of this community that see a big economic benefit from the airport.
Our job is going to be figuring out how to find a balance between those different groups—a balance between the noise and the economic benefit.
It’s not going to be an easy task, and we’re not going to make everyone happy with the decisions that are made. But we’re going to listen, and we’re going to try to make good, informed decisions.
BBJ: What would you say is the port’s overall mission when managing the airport’s growth and expansion?
Fix: We have to find a balance between the negatives and the good economic benefits of the airport.
Ports are established for economic development and transportation. Those are our primary missions. But at the same time, we have to recognize if we’re having any negative effects on our community, then we need to try to balance that with the benefits.
BBJ: Would you support some type of environmental impact study on the effects increased jet traffic has on the community?
Fix: This is an area that I believe is regulated and controlled by the FAA. They operate in this area. They know when a noise study is needed, and they know when it’s not. They write the rules and they pay for those studies, and I don’t think we can second guess at our level the FAA’s decisions on these things.
BBJ: Can you explain your focus on the Waterfront District redevelopment over the next several years?
Fix: I want to comment on what a great relationship we have with the city. Mayor Linville is terrific. Her staff are incredible to work with. We made a ton of progress in a very short period of time, because everyone is focused on it.
We want to get this thing done. We want to put the land back to work. The focus is going to be basically two-fold. We’re going to try to attract mixed-use to what we call the “downtown” section of the waterfront—the site adjacent, or closest to, downtown Bellingham. We want to get a developer in there to start building mixed-use buildings, and that’s retail, that’s office and that’s residential.
Then the second focus will be on the industrial side down toward the shipping terminal. We would like to attract a light-industrial user—and we’re not talking a heavy and dirty industry, we’re talking light industry—down to that area that would ideally utilize our shipping terminal and provide a lot of jobs.
BBJ: What type of light-industrial user could you envision going in there? Perhaps a marine-related manufacturer?
Fix: That would be ideal. We have a lot of marine-trades folks who work in this community and do business. There’s other manufacturing. I don’t want to limit what we would attract down there, because I want to keep the door open to just about anyone that would agree with our community’s values.
BBJ: In the mixed-use area, do you have a sense of how easy it would be to find developers once the ground is ready?
Fix: You know, real estate is such a cyclical business. I think, depending on who you talk to, they’ll tell you that right now we’re in different stages of that cycle.
I think the only way we’re going to determine definitively what happens down there is to go out and talk to developers, and that’s what we’re doing right now.
When we get a developer signed up and ready to build something, we’ll have a very positive message about where we’re at in the cycle. Until then, I think it’s an unknown.
BBJ: While the Gateway Pacific Terminal is not a port project, have you decided whether you support or oppose its construction?
Fix: I have not. I personally, and I also believe this is the position of the port, am going to wait and see until after the environmental impact study is completed, and then I’ll start making my decisions based on that.
Right now there’s way too many unknowns and unanswered questions for me to state an opinion, and I believe that’s also the position of our port commissioners.
BBJ: Do you think you will eventually state your opinion publicly, or would you leave the question open?
Fix: I don’t know. I think it depends on how definitive the environmental impact study comes out.
If it comes out with a whole bunch of negatives, then yeah, I could easily form an opinion opposed to the project. If it comes out and it doesn’t seem like it will have much of a negative impact, then I going to be for it because of the jobs.
But if comes out and doesn’t answer a lot of the questions, then I think I’ll have to remain somewhat neutral.
BBJ: Do you think an increase in rail traffic through Bellingham would hinder the waterfront redevelopment plans?
Fix: I think the level of trains we’re talking about coming through here is not much more than the historical highs. I think a lot of that can be mitigated with proper planning and proper transportation routes.
I’ve been in the hotel business in the past, and I’ve seen hotels built right next to railroad tracks where the effects of the noise were nothing. I’ve also seen hotels built where the effects kept people up all night. A lot of it depends on how good we do mitigating the impacts of increased rail traffic. But I believe it can be mitigated. I don’t think that’s an impossible task.
BBJ: How can it be mitigated?
Fix: Quiet zones are a big deal—requiring the railroad to implement quiet zones, having developers implement buildings that are a little quieter. Both of those things will go a long way toward mitigating the impacts. Properly designed transportation will allow for there not to be backups when trains are coming through town.
The public eye
BBJ: Do you think the resignation of former executive Charlie Sheldon damaged the public’s perception of the port?
Fix: With some folks it did. There’s a couple of categories of folks here. There’s the folks who are never happy with anything the port does, and so when Charlie was let go, that was a reason to go after the port. I think there were some folks who felt they really were damaged by him leaving. They probably had legitimate reasons to be upset. And I also think there folks who understand that in this job, or in the job of any organization, you’re pretty vulnerable. That’s just a fact of life.
BBJ: Where did you stand on the ballot measure to expand the port commission to five members, which ultimately failed?
Fix: I voted no, personally. The port didn’t have a position on it. The port put it on the ballot because it was requested to put it before the voters, and it failed.
My reason for voting no was I just didn’t see the cost justifying having two more people put on there. I’m a bean counter; I’m always going to go with the least-costly route, if it doesn’t make a difference in the end result.
BBJ: Do you have any other comments to share?
Fix: I think our commission has done an incredible job over the past few years being fiscally conservative. My goal will be to develop some key partnerships going forward. Those are already in traction, including with the city of Bellingham. I have a great relationship with our county executive, Jack Louws. He’s a great resource for me, and we’re also working together on economic development. We will be working together on other issues. We have state and federal agencies we’re going to be working with, such as the state Department of Ecology on the waterfront cleanups.
Also the existing port tenants, any potential new tenants and the overall business community—these are all relationships that we’re going to work to continue to nurture and develop over the next few years. I look forward to the opportunity of working with all these folks.
Contact Evan Marczynski at email@example.com or call 360-647-8805.