Port considering options for Whatcom Waterway

By CarolyCasey
    When we talk about waterfront redevelopment in Bellingham, most people think of the Port’s industrial property that was the site of Georgia-Pacific’s pulp and chemical operations. Certainly that area alongside Cornwall Avenue shows the most obvious need for redevelopment with demolition under way and empty brick buildings standing amidst the rubble.
   Yet it is just as important to plan for the shoreline and the waterways that surround this changing piece of property. That is why planning for the future of the Whatcom Waterway is a major focus for the Port this spring and summer.
   During May the Port Commission may vote to ask Congress to change the boundaries of the federal channel in the Whatcom Waterway. This proposed change would allow the Port to have local control of the inland area of the waterway and would keep the outer area from the shipping terminal into Bellingham Bay as a deep-draft federal channel.
   The change in the federal channel would require Congressional action, likely through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill that deals with many channel maintenance issues. This bill is expected to be approved during the summer.
   Adjusting the federal channel is a necessary step to bring to reality the community’s goal of transforming the inner portion of the waterway from steel hardened sheet piling and vertical fixed docks to a waterway with public access, softened shorelines and docks sized for visiting boaters or foot ferries. Having a locally controlled inland waterway also will make it easier to create the new in-water salmon habitat areas and preserve the healthy habitat near the Roeder Avenue Bridge.
   As a locally controlled inland channel, the waterway would remain deep enough for large boats, barges, ferries and even NOAA ships. It never has been deep enough in the inland area for deep-draft cargo ships and that would remain the case. But all commerce currently using the waterway would be able to continue to do so in a locally controlled channel.
   The Port believes the deep-draft shipping terminal in the outer area of the waterway is an important community asset that should be kept deep draft and kept as a federal channel. While Bellingham hasn’t had shipping activity for years, there currently is a 450-foot container ship, the Horizon Fairbanks, paying to be berthed at the terminal for a few months while it awaits its next shipping assignment.
   Just as the past few years have included tremendous changes for the land, these same changes have impacted the waterway. If you have lived in Bellingham or Whatcom County for more than five years, you can recall regular shipping activity at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal. For decades, that property was where Intalco shipped its aluminum ingots, cotton seed was brought in for animal feed, and G-P imported and exported material for its mill operations as well as other specialty cargos.
   Changing market conditions and changes in the shipping industry led to an abrupt loss of shipping traffic in Bellingham. Primarily this was caused by G-P closing its chemical and pulp operations and Intalco reducing its aluminum operations in response to high power costs.
   The Port’s new marine services Director, Dan Stahl, who was the executive director for the Port of Anacortes and has experience in marine shipping, spent time visiting potential shipping customers in April and May to learn more about potential shipping opportunities for Bellingham. He discovered that the international marine cargo market is shifting to larger and larger ships. In the 1970s, the ships would carry 1,000 shipping containers, while today’s ships are carrying 5,500 containers. The Bellingham Shipping Terminal does not have enough land to support that type of ship.
   Stahl’s research also found that shippers decide which port to use based upon how expensive it will be to get their product to its customer and most of the cost comes from the inland transportation. In Bellingham, our location puts us at a disadvantage because we are far from major metropolitan areas and we don’t have large volumes of local products that need to be shipped to other markets.
   While we don’t have shipping activity in Bellingham now, some believe the growing traffic on Interstate 5 might make shipping between Puget Sound communities (short-sea shipping) more promising in the future. The stronger Canadian dollar also might make it more likely for Canadian shippers to use our terminal. At the same time the Port is looking for shipping customers, it also is researching using part of the terminal for an expanded US Coast Guard facility or a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility.
   The Port believes we should keep our deep-draft facility and the Port is planning to dredge the channel near the terminal during the Whatcom Waterway cleanup effort in the coming years.

What about the landside planning?
   During the first few months of the year, the Port and the City brought forward a series of early site plan ideas for the New Whatcom area that the Port purchased from G-P. In addition to the government proposals, individuals and community groups also introduced site plan ideas.
   After several months of meetings and a great deal of public comment, the Port and City decided to spend the next few months researching the economics of these plans. Under their interlocal agreement, the Port will conduct and pay for the environmental cleanup of the waterway and the land as well as for the construction of marine infrastructure. The City has agreed to pay for the parks and trails, the roads and the utilities for the property.
   The Port plans to recoup its investment through the sale or lease of the property for redevelopment. The City plans to pay for its investment through the increased tax revenue from the redeveloped site. Together both entities are working to get as much state and federal support for the project as possible.
   Clearly the final master plan for this property has to be something that is balanced among public amenities and revenue-generating properties. Understanding the specifics of the expected costs and revenues is an essential part of the planning effort. That information will help leaders determine how much acreage can be dedicated to parks and trails while still making sure enough land remains to meet the community’s employment, housing and tax-revenue producing needs.
   The Port and City plan to share the results of their economic research with the community in September. After that, work will resume on the master plan.

Carolyn Casey is the communications manager for the Port of Bellingham.


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