In the midst of all the quarrelling over various aspects of the waterfront redevelopment project, the one thing most people seem to agree on is NOAA.
“They’re our apple pie and mother’s milk,” said Jim Darling, Port of Bellingham executive director.
The irony may be that one of the few entities most Bellinghamsters find consensus about when it comes to the waterfront may not be a sure thing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has operated its Marine Operations Center – Pacific from a privately owned Seattle dock since 1963. But even though it has been located in Seattle since before the turn of the century, its current long-term lease expires in mid-2011 and the agency is reviewing its options.
The Operations Center – Pacific operates a fleet of three ships that conduct hydrographic surveys, oceanographic and fisheries research. It is one of seven of the federal agency’s ports around the United States.
A want ad for the agency might read, “Wanted: space for six berths for four to six ships, ranging in size from 90 feet to 230 feet, as well as upland facilities for office space — all for a staff of about 185 employees.”
A corresponding ad for the Port of Bellingham might read, “Wanted: a large long-term tenant for our deepwater shipping terminal that would act as an economic stimulus, a connection with our university’s marine science initiatives, and a catalyst to spur development on the rest of our large redevelopment site.”
Needless to say, port officials think NOAA and Bellingham would be the perfect couple.
The port has been wooing NOAA to relocate to its deepwater shipping terminal on the waterfront for several years now and has recently enlisted help from business and community leaders in the form of a “Get NOAA to Bellingham” campaign, but they aren’t alone. Seattle, Everett and Port Angeles have all tipped their hats into the ring.
It seems NOAA is the apple of many jurisdictions’ eye.
The port first considered wooing NOAA to its waterfront during the Waterfront Futures Group planning process in 2003 and has since spent just under $25,000 in efforts to campaign for their relocation.
Since a fire destroyed NOAA’s two piers on Lake Union in July 2006, the agency has been unable to use them and the port has stepped up its pursuit.
“We’ve been pretty aggressive about going forward and finding out what exactly their needs are,” Darling said. “How many slips they need, how deep, what they need at the docks and upland facilities.”
During routine visits to Washington, D.C., Darling has also made several courtesy calls to NOAA command staff to better understand their needs and their process for lease renewal.
In September, the port sponsored a “Get NOAA to Bellingham” letter-writing campaign to congressional delegates Rick Larson, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, where almost 100 local business owners, government officials and educators signed off on their support for NOAA relocating to Bellingham.
Although NOAA’s lease is not likely to be decided by Congress, Darling said the port wanted to be sure the agency and local and state delegates are aware of Bellingham’s enthusiasm.
“We’ve always known that anecdotally, but we wanted to show NOAA and our congressional delegation that this would be a good fit for NOAA, and that the community would support their coming here,” he said.
NOAA would benefit the area’s economy and would fit well with Bellingham’s marine trades industry, Darling said.
“The port is all about economic development, and it would be good to have that market come here to Bellingham for local businesses,” he said.
A study commissioned by the port found that NOAA would generate $19 million locally and create 188 permanent full-time, living-wage jobs.
NOAA’s relocation to Bellingham’s waterfront could tap into local expertise gleaned from the area’s once-robust commercial fishing fleet, said Dan Stahl, port director of marine services.
“NOAA’s vessels aren’t too dissimilar from a lot of those fishing boats — they are a little bit bigger, but they have a lot of the same kind of gear — and as the commercial fishing fleet has declined over time, that expertise is still here,” he said. “But perhaps that expertise is underemployed. By bringing NOAA here, it plays to the strength of those companies.”
Rod Miller thinks NOAA’s relocation to Bellingham would not only positively impact marine trade businesses, but would also stimulate the rest of the local economy.
Miller, a survey manager with Wilson Engineering, said his company has done a good deal of hydrographic surveying work with NOAA and its subcontractors.
“If they get NOAA up here, these guys spend quite a bit of money,” he said. “Not only on the marine businesses, but everybody in general would see an increase in their business. For us, being in the hydrographic surveying business, it would be a boon having them that close.”
Reiker Sternhagen, co-owner of The Landings at Colony Wharf, said that while he doesn’t think NOAA would directly affect his business, he thinks they would bring a lot of work to contractors in the area.
“It would be good to use that property for NOAA, and with the Western connection, I just think it would be a good fit,” he said.
Darling agreed that NOAA would connect well with Western Washington University’s science departments. WWU has received grants from NOAA in the past and NOAA does quite a bit of research with its fleet, he said.
He also mentioned that a tenant like NOAA would have a big impact on the rest of the waterfront development.
“(NOAA is) compatible with waterfront redevelopment in terms of the presence and stature they would bring to us,” he said.
And what’s in it for NOAA?
The waterfront site’s deepwater shipping terminal can accommodate their facilities and Bellingham has support services to maintain their fleet, Darling said. WWU, as well as the county’s other higher-education schools, would be able to provide staff training and support for the agency, as well, he said.
The navigability of the deepwater shipping terminal would also be a plus for NOAA. Getting in and out of Bellingham is easy compared to their current location, where ships must routinely go through the Ballard locks, he said.
The next steps of the process
This month, a NOAA contractor will embark on a facilities leasing study of all relocation alternatives, which could include anywhere in Puget Sound and as far south as Astoria and Portland, said Jon Rix, commanding officer for NOAA’s Marine Operations Center – in Seattle.
The study will cull a large list of sites (a similar study for NOAA’s East Coast home port initially looked at 300) to about five by spring 2008. Then the contractor will whittle the sites down to about three by July 2008, and probably make a final decision by March 2009, Rix said.
The agency does not need congressional approval to relocate its fleet, Rix said. However, Congress could potentially intervene in the process if delegates felt inclined.
“If they so decided, they could probably make a legislative decision,” he said. “But as long as there is no legislative direction, then we follow this process.”
So far, Bellingham and Seattle have made the most vocal advances, but Port Angeles and Everett’s Naval base have also expressed interest in hosting NOAA for a while, Rix said.
“We have had tremendous support from the Seattle City Council, the Mayor’s office and the Eastlake community’s homeowners council,” he said. “Bellingham, likewise, has sent a lot of letters and hosted the ‘Get NOAA to Bellingham’ campaign’.”
Both cities have a lot going for them, he said. But while he doesn’t see many negatives about staying in Seattle, he said one of the biggest negatives about relocating anywhere else would be the amount of upheaval it would create for the agency’s work force.
Meanwhile, NOAA’s current landlord is repairing one of the damaged docks, but it won’t be ready until next fall. Moorage isn’t a problem in the spring and summer months when NOAA’s ships are out in the Pacific Ocean, but the agency will temporarily dock two of its vessels at Pier 30 in Seattle from mid-fall to spring of next year. The Port of Bellingham had vied with the Port of Seattle for those vessels to dock in Bellingham this winter, but the Port of Seattle tenant that manages Pier 30 was awarded the contract instead.
The odds for NOAA in Bellingham
If the effort proves unsuccessful, the port would continue to lease the deepwater shipping terminal to general cargo and deep draft vessels, Stahl said.
But Darling and Stahl both said they think the odds of NOAA relocating to Bellingham are good.
“It makes total sense. I think at the end of the day, NOAA’s going to make a very quantified decision about any communities’ ability to deliver,” he said. “I think our chances are as good as, if not better than, any community’s.
What other jurisdictions are doing to get NOAA
Port of Seattle
David Schaefer, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle, said the port hasn’t yet done a long-term analysis of where NOAA could relocate in Seattle, but will once the agency begins its facilities leasing study.
Recently, the Port of Seattle was able to offer NOAA winter moorage managed by the Port of Seattle.
Seattle’s reasons for keeping NOAA sound fairly similar to those of Bellingham’s.
“We are very committed to keeping them here,” Schaefer said. “They are an institution in Seattle, and the maritime industry is important here for the city, and for academic life here because of the number of people working in science fields at the University of Washington.”
In a recent letter to The Bellingham Herald, Charlie Sheldon, managing director of the Port of Seattle’s Seaport, wrote:
“A private company continues to have a long-term moorage contract for NOAA ships on Lake Union, and the Port of Seattle strongly supports efforts to extend that lease.
“This freshwater location clearly is the best option for NOAA and the most cost-effective, given the fact that freshwater moorage reduces vessel maintenance costs. The Port of Seattle is not in the practice of competing for customers with private companies, nor has NOAA sought long-term moorage from us.
“However, should the need for long-term moorage arise, we would play an integral role. We would look very carefully at NOAA’s needs and at our available facilities. We are very committed to keeping NOAA in Seattle, where they have had a successful operation for many years.”
Everett Naval Base
Rick Huling, public affairs officer for the Everett Naval Station, said the base is not actively soliciting NOAA to relocate there. While there has been some discussion between the base and NOAA about whether the base would be a suitable relocation spot, it is not lobbying NOAA in the same way Bellingham is, he said.
However, the naval base has been a joint homeport with the United States Coast Guard since 2000, so it is used to sharing space with another federal agency and would consider sharing it with NOAA if the agency requested a lease, he said.
“We have space here, we’re a federal agency, just like NOAA, so it makes a certain amount of sense,” he said. “And we have homeported with the Coast Guard, so it’s a possibility, and that’s about it.”
Port of Port Angeles
David Hagiwara, deputy executive director for the Port of Port Angeles, said the port has been in talks with its legislative delegates about getting NOAA to relocate to Port Angeles, although not to the extent Bellingham has done with its letter-writing campaign.
“We are in the process,” he said. “Things are still preliminary.”
Like many of the other communities in the running, Port Angeles would provide NOAA with waterfront dock facilities in a city with good quality of life, although a specific location has not yet been determined, he said.