City dock lies idle and Longshoreman’s Hall sits empty, save for a few port veterans swapping stories about Bellingham’s glory days
by J.J. Jensen
There was a time, reminisced longtime local longshoremen Darren Williams and Ken Maneval on a recent morning, when scores of workers could find employment at Bellingham’s marine terminals, loading and unloading seagoing vessels.
Sitting at a conference table at the once-bustling Longshoreman’s Hall, with the smell of strong coffee lingering in the air, Williams, president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Local 7, and Maneval, who worked nearly 40 years on the docks, pointed to nearby photos as examples of better times.
Hanging on the walls at the union hall on State Street are decades-old pictures, many in black and white or fading to brown with the passage of time, showing huge ships at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal unloading cargos of salmon and timber. More recently, Williams said, pulp produced at Georgia-Pacific and aluminum from the Intalco smelter were shipments that provided family- wage job opportunities for local longshoremen. But with the decline of the fishing and timber industries, and the shutdown or reduced operations of other major employers, there hasn’t been a ship requiring the help of longshoremen at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal in more than three years.
“There is no work here. Zero,” said Williams.
The local union, which peaked at 86 members in the 1960s, has shrunk from 35 members in the late 1990s to 23 members today. Meanwhile, recent efforts to secure shipping opportunities by Port of Bellingham officials and local stevedoring companies, which contract with shippers to load and unload cargo, have proved fruitless.
While longshoremen and Port officials are holding out hope that work will eventually arrive, longshoring, which dates to the early 1900s in Bellingham Bay, is currently all but dead here.
“So much work has happened over the years here, it’s really sad to see it go down the tubes,” said Maneval.
Many cargos have come and gone from Bellingham over the years, such as sulfur, fertilizer, machinery, logs, canned salmon, milk and carbon blocks, but most agree the downfall of the longshoreman began in the late 1990s.
First, “chip ships” from Chile that had been coming to G-P’s pulp mill ceased arriving when G-P found a local source for that product. Then, the energy crisis of a few years back ultimately led to the closure of G-P’s pulp mill and massive layoffs at Intalco.
“That was the turn of events that put us on the downslide,” Williams said. “The pulp mill was a mainstay for us. If you boiled it all down to the work at the Port dock, everyone relied on the pulp to be the mainstay, and the other commodities, like aluminum, we’d just load along with it.
“There’s kind of a saying in the industry, ‘ships go where there’s a lot of cargo, little bits of cargo go where the ships are.’ As long as we had G-P, and Intalco’s aluminum, producing volumes of 3,000 to 12,000 tons per ship, the ships would come here for it. Once they shut down the pulp mill and Intalco reduced its production, that was a devastating blow for the Port and this local.”
When Bellingham found itself without staple cargos, Williams believes the Port, which operates the shipping terminal, stevedoring companies and union leaders may not have tried hard enough to secure new opportunities.
“I think we were all kind of lax,” he said. “The pulp and aluminum were always there for us and when it came time to go out and be aggressive, I’m not sure we all knew how to do that, or where to look.”
Steve Jilk, the Port of Bellingham’s Director of Marine Services, said the Port has been very active in seeking new shipping opportunities and believes the shipping terminal still has a tremendous upside.
The shipping terminal, built around the 1930s, sits on about 13 acres and has around 85,000 square feet of warehouse space, rail connection and liquid bulk terminal. It also provides 1,360 feet of berthing area for vessels with up to 31.5 feet of draft, and 550 feet of berthing area for ships with up to 26 feet of draft.
“What the Port has is a deep-water warehouse and loading and unloading facility,” he said. “Whether it’s the Port of Bellingham, or whoever owns it, you’re not going to take it away, because something like that will never be permitted again. It’s an asset to the community.”
Jilk estimates the terminal could handle 80 percent of the oceangoing vessels between Bellingham and the Pacific Rim. Unfortunately, the right opportunity has not yet presented itself.
As the months, and years, have passed with no ships at the dock, many local longshoremen have opted to retire from the arduous occupation. Others, meanwhile, moved closer to the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Olympia and joined unions there.
Remaining members of Local 7 are hard-pressed to find local dock work. Jobs at the Bellingham Cold Storage dock, which often involve proprietary vessels, fishing boats and tenders, generally go to Teamsters. North of town, the existing piers at Cherry Point are privately owned, and there’s been little movement on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminals.
Because of the lack of job opportunities, Bellingham longshoremen now have to drive to Snohomish, King and Pierce counties for work, and their days, including commuting on the gridlocked Interstate 5, can be upwards of 15 hours long.
“It’s devastating to your family,” Williams said. “You’ll find the guys who do it the most are the ones who don’t have small kids.”
Longshoremen are not the only ones who’ve been affected by the inactivity at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal.
“The longshoremen have always had a spot here in Bellingham,” said Dale Glen, president of Northwest Heavy Equipment. “We’d support them with forklifts and loaders and other equipment, but when the G-P pulp mill shut down and the aluminum at Intalco went down, the longshoremen had nothing to do. We lost 20 percent of our business overnight.”
Howard Mills, owner of Mills Electric, said he also had a long history working with the longshoremen, fixing cranes or providing temporary power when ships were in.
“It was a small part of our business but every little bit helps,” Mills said.
Unlike the longshoremen, however, Mills’ and Glen’s businesses have both been able to rebound, taking advantage of Bellingham’s construction boom.
Looking to the future, major players in Bellingham’s shipping scene have mixed predictions.
“In terms of the longshoremen, the opportunities for them have been nil, but, from our perspective, it’s not because we haven’t been trying to shake the apple tree,” Jilk said.
In the last couple years, he said, Port officials have made annual trips around the region and into Canada marketing the terminal and shipping possibilities here.
Several deals, such as a near-miss with Canadian lumber producer Teal-Jones, have failed to materialize.
Still, possibilities exist.
Jilk believes options for Bellingham’s marine terminals include:
— Lay berthing, where vessels could come in for repairs.
— Short-sea shipping opportunities, where companies, from Vancouver Island perhaps, could use barges to transport products up and down the West Coast via sea routes, rather than trucking them and contributing to more congestion on the highways. BCS is examining this opportunity as well, as a way of facilitating more trade with Alaska.
— A destination for cruise ships.
There are challenges to attracting new business, however, Jilk admits.
The shipping terminal is designed for “breakbulk” shipping, or cargo that can be stacked, like lumber. But in recent years, there’s been a significant increase in the use of large containers.
Containers, when unloaded, are then usually double-stacked on railroad cars, and rail service here, because of nearby tunnels, doesn’t allow for double-stacking, Jilk said.
Also, shipping is based largely on where major populations are and where products come from. Bellingham is not a large distribution area and has few major industries nearby.
“The biggest problem you have with shipping is that if you don’t have any major producers within 100 miles of a port, you’re pretty limited,” said Warren Bailey, who retired as the Port’s Marine Terminals Manager in 2000. “You need the product to export and if there isn’t an industry exporting, you’re sunk.”
Jilk said he believes the shipping terminal’s best use is still what it was built for, but the Port will prepare for all possibilities.
As stated in the Port’s 2005 Strategic Plan, “there is a reasonable chance the shipping terminal can remain viable and make a positive contribution to Port finances over the medium term. If this does not occur, the Port may consider realigning its land assets at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal for alternate uses.”
Historically, said the Port’s Chief Financial Officer John Carter, the shipping terminal accounted for about one-third of the Port’s revenue. Today, it provides for less than five percent.
If officials could locate an industry within 50 to 75 miles that could significantly benefit from using the terminal, Carter said the terminal would be “very valuable.” If not, he’d call its value marginal.
With the Port’s acquisition of the
G-P property last year, Jilk said, the community will have a large say in what ultimately becomes of the waterfront.
“We’ll do what we can to make jobs happen but the community, through the Port, will ultimately decide what happens,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, the community will not turn its back on jobs.”
Williams is not so sure about that. He believes there are City and Port officials, along with vocal members of the community, who don’t want heavy industry on the waterfront.
The majority of plans he hears for the waterfront, he said, “are for shop operators, developers and property managers. It’s not about industry and high-paying, family-wage jobs.”
While quaint shops and a park-like setting along the waterfront would no doubt be beautiful, he believes more community members could benefit from a waterfront with industry and jobs not tied so closely to tourism.
“Sure, there’s a little bit of tourism dollars that would come with it, but tourism dollars are really subject to the economic whims of the country and, as we become more global, the world.”
Roger Sahlin, president of Bellingham Stevedoring, which has provided job opportunities for longshoremen here
for 40 years, said he’s almost out of business and that Bellingham’s days as an active shipping port are long gone.
“We used to provide good opportunities for people and our goal is still to provide jobs. We just haven’t been very successful lately,” he said. “We’re still trying but times change. You just have to realize the world is an always-changing place, just like life. If things weren’t changing, as a whole, we wouldn’t be going forward.”
Williams remains optimistic Bellingham could one day find a staple product to ship or become a niche port, and also believes it would make for a fine cruise destination.
Until then, though, the union hall, where workers once formed lines outside the building awaiting jobs, remains quiet.