This December will mark the one-year anniversary of the closure of the Georgia-Pacific tissue mill. Once a vital part of the Whatcom County economy, the full G-P operation employed about 1,200 people at its peak.
By the one-year-anniversary, G-P’s demolition contractors, Staton Companies of Eugene, Ore., will have completed the demolition of the massive tissue mill buildings. And downtown Bellingham will look onto a vacant heavy industrial site, surrounded by chain link fencing and crossed by BNSF tracks.
As a community, we should continue to remember the jobs and opportunities that were created by G-P and its predecessors. Our working waterfront, even our smokestacks, is part of our history. And our economy, especially in these troubled times, continues to feel the impact from the loss of those steady, family-wage jobs.
We could mark the anniversary in many ways. But, as an elected leader in the community, I believe the best way to honor those jobs and to begin building a new future of waterfront opportunities is to move forward on redeveloping the 220-acre site now known as The Waterfront District.
That’s why the Port Commissioner has directed port staff to submit the master plan, environmental impact statement and development plan to the city of Bellingham in December so that we can make sure our community’s vision of waterfront redevelopment becomes a reality.
We could decide the present economy is too uncertain, the risks are too great or the unknowns are too many. But I would argue that the certainty of leaving a vacant industrial site on the border of downtown will guarantee things we don’t want: a stagnant local economy, an eyesore and a lost opportunity to partner with public and private developers who want to invest in our waterfront. Experts have forecast that this redevelopment could result in 2,400 to 5,000 new jobs in the next 20 years — jobs our community needs.
We could say that more public process and analysis is needed, that we should spend another year studying our options. But I believe that also would be shortsighted. We’ve had hundreds of meetings, workshops, tours, hearings and open houses so that we could get feedback from all sectors of our community. Plus we’ve enlisted the expertise of some of the region’s finest architects, engineers, transportation planners, environmental sustainability experts and marine habitat specialists.
Financial analysts for the port and the city have created numerous financial models aimed at forecasting redevelopment costs and benefits. We’ve been at this for seven years!
When the port delivers a master plan to the City in December, it will be with confidence the ideas of Whatcom County citizens have been heard and have added to the strength of this plan.
We have accomplished about as much as we can without a master plan and development agreement with the city. We are in the final months of more than $6 million worth of demolition on the property — demolition that has been under way for three years. Engineering is under way for the multi-year cleanup of the Whatcom Waterway, a cleanup the port already has pre-funded with $22 million. And we’ve filed initial permits for construction of the new marina.
We have moved ahead with the branding and marketing of the property and have met with numerous local, regional and national developers who want to be part of project. We formed the Marine Trades Innovation Partnership Zone in a new marine trades area off of Roeder Avenue. And the first Innovation Partnership project between Western Washington University and All American Marine for new hull fixture material design and engineering has already launched. All of this has been possible under the city’s the existing zoning.
Cleaning up the waterway, building a marina and establishing a thriving marine trades center are just part of the community’s vision for the waterfront. The other part requires rezoning the property from heavy industrial to mixed use so that the parks, trails, residences, offices, schools and retail uses also can be an economically justified part of this waterfront site.
And that can’t happen until the port delivers a master plan to the city for its Planning Commission to review and Council to adopt.
The master plan won’t answer every single question or concern that will arise during the 20-to 30-year lifespan of this project. That simply isn’t possible and thankfully, the leaders of tomorrow will be in place to capably address those issues as they arise.
Today downtown Bellingham looks directly onto a vacant industrial site, surrounded by chain link fencing, with the demolition of the tissue mill underway. In the coming months the Port Commission and the City Council will be asked to remember that leaders are called to lead and often that means making tough decisions without certain answers.
Our community has asked for a mixed-use, economically sustaining, redeveloped waterfront. It will take bold action. The time for decision is now!