Mammoth site could create up to 500 new jobs
As Georgia-Pacific spearheads the demolition of more than a dozen former G-P buildings, one of the buildings that the Port of Bellingham plans to keep is set to be part of the first of many changes on the waterfront.
The mammoth 250,000-square-foot former G-P tissue warehouse is unmistakable at the end of F Street but it will soon transform into a hub for the marine manufacturing industry.
The building is now called the Marine Trades Center and is part of the Port of Bellingham’s plan to develop uses for the property until a complete Waterfront District master plan is complete.
According to the national Polk business directory, there are 110 businesses in Whatcom County that could be categorized as marine trades: 39 percent are in marine retail, providing goods for the working waterfront and boat users; 36 percent are in boat repair, storage and transportation; 16 percent are boat builders and shipyards; and 9 percent are in the recreational charter business.
Lydia Bennett, the Port of Bellingham’s real estate director, said the port’s ultimate goal for the 32.5 acres surrounding the Marine Trades Center is the promotion of the marine trades in Whatcom County.
“Our intention is to create a thriving Marine Trades Area that continues to evolve and expand,” Bennett said.
Dodd Snodgrass, economic development specialist for the Port of Bellingham, said the land is already zoned for industrial use and presents no significant environmental clean-up needs.
“The beauty of this site is that it’s ready to go,” Snodgrass said.
First, the port must determine which businesses would make appropriate tenants and how much it would cost to wall off each unit within the larger space.
The working waterfront
The port is considering several configurations for the Marine Trades Center in an effort to come up with the most efficient use of the available space, Snodgrass said.
He said one of the concepts the architects came up with was to cut off 50,000 square feet from waterfront side of the building nearest to the marina to house marine-related retail, which would be jobs created to support the marine trades manufacturing in the bulk of the building and marina customers.
“As far as job creation, manufacturing is a great job multiplier,” Snodgrass said. “We could see 500 plus jobs created in the entire Marine Trades Area.”
According to the Marine Industry Cluster Study for Northwest Washington, regionally the marine trades industries generate $362 million in economic output and support more than 4,000 jobs.
Jim Darling, executive director for the Port of Bellingham, said the port plans within the Marine Trades Area are designed to reflect the port’s commitment to Whatcom County’s marine manufacturing industries.
“Many people feel that waterfronts are just for recreational activities but in fact they are a very strong economic engine that drives our local economy,” Darling said.
As the Marine Trades Area folds into the larger plans for the waterfront, the port will have to balance the industrial character of the marine trades with pedestrian-friendly components of the Waterfront District redevelopment such as access to a planned trail around the outside of the marina.
Bennett cited Granville Island in Vancouver, British Colombia as an example of an area that has pedestrian access to the waterfront but is also friendly to heavy industry.
“We’re not anticipating becoming Granville Island, but the balance of pedestrian and industrial can be accomplished through careful planning of where pedestrians can go and allowing them to go places that are appropriate,” Bennett said. “People like watching working waterfronts.”
Bennett said if this site was left to the real estate market, the site would be developed into what made the most money and typically that is higher-end housing. However, she said the port is committed to supporting the marine trades industry.
“It takes a very strong commitment to say that it’s not just about the dollars — it’s about what this land can bring such as jobs, innovation, technology and a continued success for marine trades,” Bennett said.
In the planning phase
While the plans for the Waterfront District evolve, the port is doing what it can with what it has, including working on cost analyses to determine how much it would cost to prepare the building for short-term, intermediate and long-term users.
“The whole idea of this building is being able to build flexibility into the spaces so that as users need more or less space, they can be accommodated and we have the luxury of 250,000 square feet,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the port has several existing tenants who have expressed interest in the building and there are other possible short-term uses, such as dry storage for boats, which could be flexible with space needs.
“We don’t have the whole building filled,” Bennett said. “But I think once the vision is clear and well-articulated to everyone and we have a better idea of the costs, then I think people will go, ‘Oh, OK, now we know and let’s move forward.’”
The building will also house the port’s Innovation Partnership Zone, a designation the port acquired last September along with a $1 million state grant. The funds will help develop a space for marine research and innovation as well as training to help produce skilled marine trade workers on the cutting edge of their industry.
Snodgrass said the port will set aside 10,000 square feet in the Marine Trades Center for a space that will support collaborative, innovative marine research between Western Washington University and Bellingham Technical College.
Snodgrass said the space could also be appealing on a month-to-month basis for any business that has a marine component.
“It’s easy to come in, use the space for a while and then when a permit change occurs — they can either be a part of it or they can move on,” Snodgrass said.
Any interim uses in the Marine Trades Area must fold into the master plan for the entire Waterfront District, Bennett said. So the port’s challenge is to ensure that early actions under the current zoning do not preclude future alternatives under a different zoning.