The WAG and The BBF both aim to be watchdogs of the
Port/G-P project, but where do their paths diverge?
When it comes to keeping tabs on redevelopment of the 137-acre Georgia-Pacific site, port and city officials agree that many sets of eyes keeping watch on the project is a good thing.
One group in particular, the Waterfront Advisory Group (WAG), was appointed by the mayor and port commissioners in April to serve as a community voice in helping guide the future of Bellingham’s waterfront. A primary function of the 10-member group is to ensure the principles outlined by the disbanded Waterfront Future Group (WFG) are respected in future developments.
In June, however, another waterfront-watchdog group, the Bellingham Bay Foundation (BBF), appeared. At a salmon barbecue, near the shores of the bay, the BBF’s 13 directors introduced themselves to the community as a citizen’s group focused on keeping the G-P site in public ownership, creating innovative economic development and ensuring a thorough site cleanup.
Both groups are studded with prominent community members and business leaders. And, in recent months, both groups have been meeting with local residents, community groups and elected officials to discuss what possibilities may lie ahead for the waterfront. Both are waiting for separately hired consultants to complete more definitive plans that will shed light on the site’s future.
So what, exactly, sets these two groups apart?
Last Thursday at Boss Tweed restaurant, members of both groups, over coffee, oatmeal, tea and omelets, talked about their plans for the future and issues that differentiate the two groups.
Representing WAG was chairman Cy Lindberg, a longtime member of the local finance and construction communities, and vice chairwoman Vanessa Blackburn, a former Bellingham Business Journal reporter and current business developer for Blue Future Filters.
BBF members included executive director James Johnston; Anne-Marie Faiola, owner of Bramble Berry Inc. and Otion; Elisabeth Britt, president of Cascade Financial Group; and downtown developer Bob Hall.
BBJ: So what are the similarities and differences between your two groups?
Blackburn: To me, from what I’ve heard everyone talk about, there are very similar goals in trying to ensure that the site is cleaned up properly, and that the guiding principles of the WFG are enacted when the port and city have plans for the site.
One of the main differences is that the WAG was formed by an inter-local agreement between the port and the city. We were established as an official entity as recommended by the WFG to be an advocate for their guidelines.
Johnston: We go to all the same meetings, which is a similarity. The difference is (WAG members) have their lunch provided for them.
Lindberg: And you’re getting paid.
Faiola: I think we’re very similar, just working in slightly different arenas.
Basically, we’re here to augment, and continue to help in a private manner, the work the WFG did. We just really want to help the port and city and WAG develop the site in a manner the WFG and community really wanted.
Britt: We do not see ourselves as competition with the WAG or port or city. We really want to be in partnership with all these entities and work closely with them and help them by sharing as much information as we can so we can have an incredible waterfront.
BBJ: Is there ever any concern that, despite all your work, the city and port are just going to go ahead with their own plans?
Hall: That’s my concern. I think the port was driven for the (new) marina and they had to pick up the G-P site and it was a little more than they wanted to bite off, so I’m concerned that they might have a mediocre product come out of that after it’s all over.
Lindberg: It’s a concern with any publicly owned asset. I don’t have any specific complaints with the port or city, but I think public involvement is crucial — otherwise they’re going to operate in an information vacuum and then do what they think is best and say we got what we deserved because we didn’t participate in the process and be vocal about what we wanted.
Blackburn: I think one of the concerns of the WFG was that they were going to go through all these months of work and then have their document sit on a shelf and have nothing happen. That was one reason they strongly advocated to form the WAG, to make sure that their flame stayed alive as we move forward, and that the city and port follow their guidelines.
BBJ: Do you believe community members, business leaders and elected officials are being proactive in overseeing the redevelopment of the waterfront or do you feel like you’re going about this work alone?
Faiola: The community support we’ve received has just been outstanding. There’s such high interest and people really want to get involved. I rarely go to a lunch or breakfast or meeting where it doesn’t come up. I don’t feel like I’m working in a vacuum.
Hall: Everyone in this town wants the same thing, which is a prosperous community. We’ve gone through a public process with the Waterfront Futures Group, which, as a result, gave us something most people agree with — that we want this waterfront to be mixed-use, we don’t want another pulp mill and we don’t want it to be tidal marsh. The challenge for the community, and everyone involved, is to insist on excellence in implementing that vision.
BBJ: Let me throw two phrases out there for you: public ownership and private ownership.
Britt: The differences are dramatic. Public ownership provides the opportunity to revisualize the waterfront as our needs change, that’s the prominent purpose of keeping it in public ownership. In 100 years, if we need to change the dynamics of the way our waterfront works, we’ll have the capability to do that. If we have 100-year leases then when they expire we can go back and change things. Private ownership may or may not provide us with that flexibility.
Faiola: The public and the port really had amazing foresight to get this land and I’d really like to see the public benefit from it for years to come, not just in the initial years.
I’m looking at how Hawaii has developed with its public ownership, and how part of downtown Seattle, with the University of Washington, has land that it has used to its best advantage. I see Bellingham as being able to have that land publicly owned and be a crown economic prosperity driver for the rest of its future. Selling off to private developers doesn’t do anything for the long term.
Johnston: Read “Denny’s Knoll,” a history of where the University of Washington is located.
It was deeded to the university and their first thought was to sell it off to private developers. Fortunately, in retrospect, nobody bought it. Now, the university leases are a source of revenue that’s important for public assets. The university is a huge economic driver in the community. It’s a history of how public property is an economic driver for the community, and I think something similar can happen here.
Blackburn: The WFG definitely said in their guiding principles that public ownership is something that should be considered, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for the WAG right now to have any judgment one way or the other.
It’s definitely an idea to pursue because there
46;s obviously a large interest in this community to look into that issue.
Lindberg: It creates questions I think are worth exploring.
If you have public ownership and remove the opportunity for private ownership, does it remove people who might be considering doing development down there?
Some developers have a history of just doing privately held property.
I know there are lots of examples of places that have public and private mixed uses on waterfronts. You talk about downtown Seattle, in addition to the University of Washington properties, which are some of the plum properties downtown, there’s obviously interspersed in there a lot of private ownership as well, so I don’t think you necessarily need to exclude either one, but maybe have a mixture of the two.
There are some things that public entities can do better than private and some things that private can do better than public.
BBJ: What are some other groups that should be staying on top of waterfront happenings?
Blackburn: The downtown businesses. I’ve talked to many of them and know that there’s a concern that the development of the waterfront is somehow going to detract from downtown, so having the downtown businesses in this process will be important, especially in the next several months as designs come forward.
The idea is that this will dissuade their fears and we will have a plan down there that will be directly related to the downtown.
Lindberg: A weakness that a lot of people have talked about in the 30 years I’ve lived here is the disconnect between the waterfront and downtown and the lack of connection between the two. I think that’s being addressed and I think it’s critical that downtown view the waterfront as an extension rather than competition.
Hall: Yes, the downtown is going to benefit first because the port site is going to take so long to develop.
BBJ: What are some issues on the waterfront that people aren’t talking about or should be paying closer attention to?
Johnston: The (new) marina.
I think the community is owed a robust conversation about what a marina for luxury yachts means for the character and economy of downtown. It might not be a bad thing, but our group thinks we should have a conversation about what it means to have hundreds of luxury yachts here. Is Bellingham going to become Aspen by the sea? Are we going to turn the waterfront into a bunch of high-end nightclubs and helicopter pads for the super wealthy?
Britt: From an environmental-management perspective, this is our one opportunity to achieve the maximum level of cleanup for the best economic value. To try to go back in and clean up something once development has taken place is extremely expensive, so we want to be extremely careful.
BBJ: Are there any myths about either of the two groups that you’d like to clear up?
Hall: One thing that came up when I first heard about the BBF was with all the work the port and other groups had been doing, I thought, ‘what were these guys up to?’ Was this going to be a big lawsuit over environmental things or was this going to be a takeover from developers?
The more I’m involved, the more that’s vanishing. It’s really about making sure this is done in an excellent way.
Blackburn: For me, at first, I was unsure as to what WAG’s role was, and how we were going to be moving forward as a group. I think it’s much more clear as to what our big thing is — it’s carrying on the flame of the WFG and, to me, that’s pretty focused.
Johnston: Nobody (with the BBF) wants to turn this entire site into a big park, but there has to be a very large role for a park or parks down there.
Both the Waterfront Advisory Group and Bellingham Bay Foundation have busy schedules during the new few weeks and months, discussing potential plans for redevelopment of the Georgia-Pacific site. For more information on the two groups, go to: http://bbayf.org