Three local positions vital to economic growth and development are now open. What are these organizations looking for as they choose successors?
Growth, economic development and activities on the waterfront have been three of the biggest issues in Bellingham in recent years.
In the coming weeks and months, however, the city, Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council (EDC) and port will each lose a top official who, in recent years, has helped determine how those aforementioned matters will play out.
On the move are: Jorge Vega, Bellingham’s planning and community development director; Rob Pochert, president of Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council (EDC); and Steve Jilk, the port’s director of marine services.
No full-time replacements have been named yet for any of their soon-to-be vacant positions.
Many in the community — as well as the three high-profile officials themselves — believe the departures come at a pivotal point in Bellingham’s history, as public and private entities and local residents grapple with what they want Bellingham to become, and how they want to reach that ideal.
Here’s a description of each of the jobs, how they relate to the local business world, what’s been accomplished recently and what needs to be addressed.
City of Bellingham
Planning and Community
Despite receiving an increasing amount of criticism for how the city is dealing with growth, and calls from some residents for a letter of “no confidence” in his leadership, Vega maintains his resignation, submitted in October, has nothing to do with pressure from the community.
The decision, he said, was his wife’s, who wanted to return to the South to be closer to her family, including her 96-year-old mother and a sister with health concerns.
“The call of family for (my wife) has been very strong and I understand and respect that need,” he said.
Vega’s last day is Dec. 15. He will then join his wife in Columbus, Ga., and begin work in January as a civil litigation attorney with the law firm of Hatcher Stubbs.
Longtime city planner Greg Aucutt will serve as the interim director until a replacement is hired.
Vega, who was appointed to the position by Mayor Mark Asmundson in May 2003, initially came to the city to serve in a different capacity.
Vega, an attorney from Texas, was hired as an assistant city attorney. When city officials learned of his past management experience, however, they asked him if he’d be willing to lead the Planning Department, which has about 50 employees and, among other things, oversees building services, the permit center and short-term and long-range management of growth.
Vega said one of his key tasks was to make the department more efficient. Examples of how he believes he’s accomplished that include initiating a process to get development regulations out of neighborhood plans and into a Unified Development Code, and launching the city’s “one-stop” permit center, in which several key planning departments are now housed in one location in an effort to improve customer service and a timely building-application process.
“Jorge filled an important role during a critical time in our community, and I’m grateful for his leadership,” Asmundson said.
Vega, while confident in his current staff, said there are still some issues he didn’t get to see to see through to completion.
The incoming director, he said, will likely be involved in the final stages of developing and approving a Critical Areas Ordinance, Shoreline Master Program and sizing of the Urban Growth Area.
The new director, Vega said, will also continue dealing with business owners and builders regularly, in determining the best locations for businesses and developments, and working closely with groups like the Downtown Renaissance Network, Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and EDC.
“The most important thing our department can do from an economic-development standpoint is to make sure that when there are business or development proposals that we deal with them in a predictable and timely fashion, because delays cost money,” he said.
In a nationwide search for a new director, a position that will pay around $100,000 annually, city officials are seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning or public administration and at least seven years experience in planning, economic and community development.
Issues the new director will be involved with, according to a recruitment brochure for the position, include growth management, downtown and waterfront redevelopment, team building, plan updates and a development review process.
Adams Consulting, a Bothell firm, has been hired to aid in the candidate search. Applications for the position are due Jan. 23 and a selection process, with input from city, business, development and community stakeholders, will likely follow.
Vega said he believes the new director should have thick skin, a good sense of humor and management experience. They should also be prepared to work with a passionate community.
“It’s a very involved community and that’s a great thing,” he said. “But the challenge for any director, when you have an involved community, is there are going to be differing opinions, especially in development, planning, and dealing with growth. It’s that involvement that’s so much a part of Bellingham that makes it a special place — and it’s also a challenge because we have to find a way to balance the differing opinions and try to get to where we’re all going in the same direction and obtaining the same goals.”
Port of Bellingham
Director of Marine Services
When approached recently by Whatcom County Public Utility District No. 1 about the possibility of replacing retiring general manager Tom Anderson, Steve Jilk, the port’s director of marine services, said the job was too intriguing to turn down.
After all, the $95,000-a-year position will allow Jilk, 58, a farm boy from Minnesota and former city administrator in Lynden to return to one of his passions — working with small communities.
“I wanted to get back into a municipal public works situation where I’d have an opportunity to work on non-operational issues like watershed and water-rights issues,” he said. “(The PUD) also works on a countywide basis with small groups, like the agricultural community and small cities, as I had done in Lynden. And this was an opportunity to get back into a chief administrative position.”
Jilk will leave his job with the port Feb. 28, and begin his new position in March.
Originally hired by the port in 2001 to serve in a newly created economic-development position, Jilk moved to his current position in 2003 when commissioners decided to restructure divisions and the current marine services director retired.
As director of marine services, Jilk oversees a $6 million budget and 18 employees, as well as operations at the port’s two marinas, shipping terminal, cruise terminal and Fairhaven transportation station.
Jilk said two of his biggest accomplishments in the position were resolving staffing issues within the division and renewing a contract with the state of Alaska for continuing to include Bellingham in the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Ongoing issues the new director will likely be involved with, Jilk said, include maintaining reasonable moorage rates, seeking opportunities to better utilize the shipping terminal, determining a cost structure for the upkeep of facilities and working with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration on possibly relocating their Seattle operations to Bellingham.
As the port and city progress on their redevelopment of the Georgia-Pacific property, Jilk said, the marine services director will most likely be involved in overseeing the conversion of the water-treatment lagoon into a new marina.
Because the port serves in an economic-development capacity, Jilk said, it will be important for the new marine services director, who will earn between $75,000 and $90,000, to be involved with groups in the business community and be a good statesman for the port and community.
“It’s critical that the person in this position has a relationship with the waterfront businesses and other business-related agencies, like the longshoremen,” he said. “By having a good relationship, this person can appreciate how activities on port property can positively or negatively affect businesses located within our marine community.”
Jim Darling, the port’s executive director, said there’s currently a regional search, from Washington to California, to find Jilk’s replacement.
The ideal candidate, he said, will have senior-level experience at a public or private organization and a background in marine services and marine-terminal operations.
A port committee will screen applications and be involved in the interview process for finalists. The new marine services director, Darling said, will likely be named later this month or first part of next year and then work alongside Jilk for a few weeks.
Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council President
Of the three high-profile, local economic-development positions to be vacant soon, the future of the EDC president position is the most unclear.
Last month, EDC board members announced they would not be renewing the contract of Rob Pochert, president since 2003, because they were unsure of what direction they wanted the organization to go and the functions it would serve in the community.
“We’re of a mind that there’ll be some changes,” said Ray Trzynka, chairman of the EDC board of directors. “At this point, we’re still doing some due diligence on how that might look or shape out. It could realistically be a continuation of many of our programs and priorities or there could be some considerable and fundamental shifts with the way we work with partners.”
The change of direction comes at a busy time for the EDC, a nonprofit, public-private partnership with an operating budget of $325,000.
Pochert, who is under contract through Mar. 31, said he is currently talking to 25 companies that have expressed interest in possibly doing business in Whatcom County, and 18 other “real prospects that have business plans and know what they want to do.”
When Pochert started his job, there were no projects in his caseload.
Almost all of the businesses currently looking to relocate to Whatcom County, Pochert said, are Canadian companies looking to establish a presence in the U.S.
Whatcom County is also an attractive locale for businesses, he said, because of the availability of industrial property, and the large number — and good reputations — of its educational institutions.
Also, “It’s a pretty darn nice place to live,” he said.
Helping build the EDC to its current level was no easy task for Pochert, who filled the president position after it had been vacant for several months.
Since taking the job, he’s designed and developed an economic-development program, worked to retain, attract and help businesses expand, and established relationships with numerous groups and governments throughout the county.
Still, however, he said, there are some in the community and elsewhere who view Bellingham as anti-business. He points to several large companies that have left town recently to do business in the county and vocal members of the community who don’t support growth as examples of where those sentiments may stem from.
“Economic development equals more job opportunities and wealth for the community,” Pochert said. “Economic development does not equal just buying local. I support (buying local) but it doesn’t bring in new wealth, it circulates the money that’s already here. Unless business can grow and prosper, the local economy can stagnate or encourage businesses already here to go somewhere else.”
Because EDC board members have yet to determine changes in the organization they’d like to see, both Pochert and Trzynka hesitate to say what qualities and characteristics an ideal candidate should possess.
“Within a couple month’s time, we’re going to be really narrowing down what we think might be the preferred model for the EDC,” Trzynka said.
Pochert, a former business development/marking manager for Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, said he plans to stay in the economic-development field and is currently seeking other opportunities.