It is no secret — business people don’t like to attend government meetings unless they have a specific item on the agenda. Even then, they might not actually like being at the meeting. Many business people are just too busy running their businesses. Others say they’ve had negative experiences from being the only business voice in a room.
Yet during this intensive time of planning the future of Bellingham’s waterfront, it is essential to hear from all sectors in the community about their visions, needs and expectations for the 20-year waterfront redevelopment project. A project of this scope needs to work from a public access standpoint, and from a business standpoint.
That’s why the port and city created an Inbound Investment Committee to be part of the master planning effort. This committee is charged with reviewing the master plan concepts from the perspective of good business practices.
“An interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that this committee shares many of the ideas we’re hearing from other groups—such as making the site memorable, folding in public access amenities, and capitalizing on the waterfront attraction,” said John Carter, the Port’s chief financial officer, who chairs the committee. “But the difference is that they are helping us understand how important these factors are from the business perspective.”
The group has met three times so far and will meet more frequently as actual site-design alternatives are unveiled in January. The committee met with CollinsWoerman, the consultant charged with creating the overarching Strategic Guidelines for the project, to share their ideas and concerns before the guidelines were drafted.
The guidelines will be adopted by the City Council and Port Commission in December and will be used by LMN Architects as they create site-plan alternatives.
“The committee will be looking at the ideas from the perspective of functionality,” Carter said. “For example, a guideline might emphasize pedestrian access through the site instead of vehicle access and they want to be sure the new grocery stores’ trucks will be able to supply it.”
The Port and City plan to pay for this redevelopment through new property tax revenue, land leases and land sales from the site, so it is essential that the new central waterfront attracts private investors who will take it from a plan on paper to a real extension of downtown Bellingham.
This year hundreds of people toured the Port’s newly acquired property on the waterfront. As they walked past the vacant warehouses, the heaps of debris from demolition work and the tall brick buildings, the most common responses were:
“I had no idea this was so big,” and “This is going to be a huge project.”
Even Port staff had that response when they toured the former Georgia- Pacific site in the months before the Port commissioners voted to acquire it in January 2005. The site inspires and overwhelms with the opportunity and hard work ahead in redeveloping it.
It is about the same size as the main Western Washington University campus and larger than the central business district. Development decisions here will impact development throughout Bellingham and perhaps throughout all of Whatcom County.
Bryant Engebretson, owner of the Edward Jones Investment office at the Port’s Bellwether on the Bay development, said he thinks it is essential to consider the business perspective of the waterfront redevelopment project.
“I am going to be looking for does it makes sense for business and will people enjoy coming down there,” he said. “We could build the most beautiful park system down there that anyone has seen — but if no one goes down there, it will just be a big tax drain. If it makes sense for business, it will make sense for the community.”
As a businessman who sought out a waterfront business location with adjacent parks and trails, Engebretson said it is a myth that the business community wants all buildings and the general community wants all parks.
A balance of uses is what all sectors should be seeking because it allows for a development that is financially viable and has public amenities that don’t drain the public budget.
One issue the Inbound Investment Committee is watching closely is height restrictions. If buildings aren’t allowed to be tall enough, the sites won’t attract investment or buildings will sprawl across the entire site.
“When someone said a 40-foot height limit had been mentioned somewhere, pretty much everyone on the committee talked about what a waste of the resource that would be,” he said. “We all groaned. It would really limit the number of people who can enjoy the property.”
Given that concern, does Engebretson believe business people will take part in public hearings on the site plan?
“Not likely. A lot of business people and developers are waiting until they know what is going to happen and then they will approach it from the perspective of whether they want to invest in it,” he said.
Another committee member, developer Ted Mischaikov agreed.
He said one of the concerns he is hearing is that opportunities be available in the redevelopment for local people.
“I know there is a lot of interest in the business community to make sure there are opportunities for local people,” he said. “This is seen as a community asset — local ownership.”
And he is looking at the development plans to make sure consideration is being given to the impacts of existing business and how bringing so much new property on the market will impact them.
“We want to see it done in a way that can float everyone’s boat.”
What is he looking for in the plans?
“As a committee member I will look for structures that are incentives for private investment and that respect the risk/return ratios adequately and fairly. I also will look for opportunities to be flexible in the approach. I am very interested, personally, professionally and as a citizen, in the ability to attract one or two major anchors. One of the reasons the G-P redevelopment success has been so successful to date is that we are approaching it as a community.”
“I think people are very bullish on Bellingham’s waterfront,” Mischaikov said. “Great things are going to happen here.”
The City and Port master planning for New Whatcom is underway now. Numerous public meetings will be occurring and lots of information is available. To find out more, please visit the project Web-site at www.newwhatcom.org. The Port is happy to provide speakers for community groups to tell them more about this project. If you are interested, contact Carolyn Casey at 360-676-2500.