Tasked with riding herd on the disparate groups involved in the G-P site efforts, Hager knows he’s in for a wild ride
As the early phases of planning begin on development of the Port of Bellingham’s recently acquired 137 acres of waterfront property, a potpourri of decision-makers has been assembled.
Drafting concepts for development of the former Georgia-Pacific property, which is now being called the “New Whatcom Development,” are port, city, public and private officials.
At times, to some, deciphering the organizational structure of the decision-making process can be as daunting as solving a Rubik’s Cube.
Enter Bill Hager, the man charged with bringing everyone together on what many call the most significant development in the last century in Bellingham.
In hiring Hager to serve as the New Whatcom project developer, a 10-month position that will pay up to $60,000, the city and port are getting someone who knows the ins-and-outs of both agencies perhaps better than anyone.
One might even go so far as to call Hager, 54, “Mr. Bellingham Public Service.”
Prior to retiring from the port in February, Hager had spent the last 13 years serving as its director of planning and property management; before that, he was the port’s planning and environmental manager.
And as a young man, just out of the University of Washington, where he received a degree in urban planning, Hager began his public service career with the city. In his 15 years there he served as a senior planner, shoreline planner and planning director.
“In my 30 years of public service in Bellingham, I’ve seen it all,” Hager said. “The good, the bad and the indifferent.”
But, this winter, as Hager was set to begin a new endeavor, starting Carpathia Consulting LLC, a development-services and land-use strategies consulting firm, he was tapped again by the city and port.
Like The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” it seemed, he could check out any time he’d like, but he could never leave.
On a recent, drizzling morning in a port office on Cornwall Avenue, Hager, just back from tours of waterfront developments in Maine and Wisconsin, sat at a conference table, surrounded by a sea of New Whatcom Development renderings.
With dry wit and a sharp memory, Hager talked with The Bellingham Business Journal about his new position and what’s coming next in the development of the New Whatcom area.
BBJ: Explain your new role and how this position came about.
BH: I think (port director) Jim Darling and the mayor (Mark Asmundson) were sitting around saying, ‘We need somebody who’s familiar with both city and port operations, is familiar with the project and can get this jump started so we don’t waste too much time.’ So they asked if I’d be the project coordinator.
The job is managing continuing projects, organization, setting timelines and getting other consultants into place to do the work. It’s like a project manager, in a way.
BBJ: I’m a little foggy on this — how does the decision-making process work?
BH: There’s an executive team (Darling, Asmundson and his chief administrative officer, Malcolm Fleming) that oversees all of this and I meet weekly with them to get words of wisdom and instructions and let them know how all the other pieces are going.
I’m also the point guy with all the city and port committees. That’s why they needed somebody familiar with both agencies and who knew the people and the scene and how things work.
Final decisions will be made by the public and the city staff.
Decisions will be reviewed by the different committees and the Waterfront Advisory Group, and there’ll be some open houses for the public along the way.
Then there will be a preferred development plan that is assembled and it will go to the city and the port through their regular approval process.
BBJ: You’ve been meeting recently with consulting teams. What role will they play?
BH: One of the things I was charged to do was draft a request for proposals and qualifications for consultants to assist in assembling the development plan for the New Whatcom area. Different disciplines were requested, so we asked for a civil engineer, park planner, land-use person and a couple other minor consultants.
We had 43 responses to ads published in Seattle and Bellingham. That really shows the amount of interest that this project has.
For the last month, I’ve held meetings with all those interested parties, trying to bring them up to speed on the project because the whole idea here is ‘Let’s not waste people’s time.’
About six people have read through all the proposals and ranked them. In early July, we’ll interview the top six firms.
BBJ: What else have you been busy with?
BH: One of the things I was asked to do was search out similar-sized cities and situations to Bellingham and learn from them about the things that went right and things that went wrong. (In mid June) I went to Cheboygan, Wisc. and Portland, Maine.
BBJ: What did you learn from the trip?
BH: I think the biggest thing I learned is that it takes bold leadership on the local level to make these (big developments) occur.
Cheboygan, which has about 52,000 people on Lake Michigan, had a few bumps in the road. They had a referendum on their overall waterfront-development plan and an advisory-only committee that told them, ‘We don’t want you to proceed.’
The council/aldermen decided to go ahead with plans anyway. They’re now in their second phase of development and they’ve done a great job.
They brought in a developer early to help them assemble some of the plan components and that’s one of the things Bellingham has been wondering — when do you bring in the developing interest?
They brought their developer in early and, as a result, they have a 200-room lodging facility as a kick-off project.
In Portland, lessons were a little different.
The city’s been struggling with their land acquisitions. In 25 years, there really hasn’t been much progress.
What I learned was that what they’ve been involved with probably had too lengthy of a visioning process before they got going. One person was very frank and said, ‘We needed to be much more action-oriented after we got input and not just continued to go out and ask questions.’
BBJ: Many community members say there needs to be public input on this development. Is the Waterfront Advisory Group enough or does there need to be more community members involved?
BH: Remember, the Waterfront Advisory Group was formed only to make sure the principles and guidelines of the Waterfront Futures Group continued. They’re not here to reinvent the wheel.
I think the mistake Portland made was that with each subsequent group, they started trying to reinvent the wheel and got off on different tangents. Finally, they said, ‘We need to focus on what the original intent was.’
Through the plan we’re going to be making with the consulting team, city and port, we’ll have a series of open houses to get actual feedback from folks on detailed plans but we’re not going to keep opening it up and saying, ‘What do you think should go h
BBJ: The big thing everyone wants to know is when they’ll start noticing change on the waterfront.
BH: Generally, it’s still going to be a while because the environmental cleanup has to go forward and Georgia-Pacific is leasing the tissue mill and stabilization basin through ’08.
People who want to see action are going to have to wait until regulatory formats are in place. That’s when developers will start to show interest. One of the things I’ve learned is that developers tend to be more aggressive if they know the local jurisdiction is following through on their plans.
With that said, there will be projects we’ll try to identify with the consulting team and committees called ‘early action projects,’ to try to get some development and other things happening down there until we really get going.
There’s probably four or five early action projects that, once they get budgeted by the port and city, might be able to go.
Some people want a kayak-launching area. There may be restrooms and stack facilities. Or it may be actual commercial and residential development in areas that are clean and ready to go. They could happen anytime, as long as the utilities were there.
BBJ: At the May Waterfront Advisory Group meeting, you said you envisioned this area being divided into seven or eight districts. Expand on that.
BH: If you look at the property, it’s a couple hundred acres. When you look at some of the planning literature, it says that if you’re developing a larger area, one of the thoughts is that you want to look at it in neighborhood units, where there’s a mix of retail business and residential within each one of those areas, so you can live and work right there.
I think each one of these neighborhood units may have a different emphasis, so it may have a different name within an overall name, like ‘The Marina at New Whatcom’ or ‘Milltown at New Whatcom.’ There’s going to be a different flavor to each one of them.
One of the things I looked at on my trip was architectural styling. In Portland, it was all brick buildings from 100 years ago. It looked neat but as I walked more and more, after awhile it got boring.
One of the things I might suggest is different styles in different areas.
BBJ: When it’s all said and done, how will this development change the face of the city?
BH: One of the things that was very apparent on my visits to cities is that there needs to be a large residential component.
Those areas that did not have a large residential component, or where residential activities hadn’t occurred yet, at night, they were flat. Milwaukee’s still struggling with that.
Portland, Maine, which has a population of 70,000, has been trying to get residential in, and it has much more activity at night, in terms of people. Milwaukee has 700,000 and has been trying to get more people back downtown by having events and concerts, but it’s still not the same as when people are down there eating and having fun.
And, with (Bellingham) going through growing pains, (this development) is a great opportunity to absorb 3,000 or 4,000 people in the heart of the city. That should not only strengthen this project but all of downtown Bellingham.