After Aluminum Boats Australia picked the Fairhaven waterfront to base its new American subsidiary, the Port of Bellingham stood ready to gain a job-generating tenant with an international footprint.
However, less than one month after leasing plans were drawn up for Building 7 in the Fairhaven Marine Industrial Park, the company backed out saying it would be too expensive to use the facility.
The reversal was a total surprise for port officials as a seven-month wooing process, once thought a done deal, was dashed in early May.
“I think that everyone involved believes we all gave it our best shot,” said Shirley McFearin, the port’s real estate development manager. “It came down to just our facility did not meet the needs of ABA.”
Company owners found the property unsuitable mainly due to federal salmon habitat and tidelands protections restricting them from building a facility in the bay waters that would give them direct-launch capability for their boats.
ABA builds a variety of aluminum and composite high-performance commercial vessels anywhere from 60 feet to more than 100 feet in length.
The company thought it could get around the need for such a facility by transporting completed boats down to the Fairhaven Shipyard at the end of Harris Avenue, where direct-launch capability exists.
But after ABA co-owner Roy Whitewood visited the site in April, he found the transport plan would be too costly.
“He actually determined that the economics would not work for them unless they had a direct launch,” McFearin said. “Had we been able to give them a direct launch from Building 7 it would have been a no brainer—a done deal.”
ABA now plans to open in a privately-owned Anacortes site once it secures a new business contract with an unnamed African country.
With the lease gone, the port is left to decide whether a new plan or new facilities are needed at the Fairhaven Marine Industrial Park, which has shown it can attract large-scale marine manufacturers but might not be able to support their operations.
Port commissioner Michael McAuley said he understands the importance of protecting sensitive coastal environment, but if the port is serious about using the Fairhaven park for boat building it will need a direct-launch facility.
“Everybody’s hiding behind this, “Oh, we can’t do anything because of habitat,” and if that was true nothing would happen,” he said. “I don’t like idle assets, and underutilized assets are almost as bad as idle assets.”
McAuley’s solution is to build a large marine “travel lift,” which would allow boat makers to wheel vessels directly from their manufacturing plants out to deeper seas along over-the-water tracks set on small piers.
Such a lift would negate the need for launch facilities close to shore.
In Fairhaven, McAuley would like to see two narrow piers start at the northern end of the industrial park and extend out far enough into the bay so as to minimize the coastal impacts of boat launches.
He said if a lift was properly designed and implemented the sensitive coastline could still be protected, especially if accompanied by the removal of current structures at a nearby estuary and a habitat buildup at the mouth of Padden Creek just west of the industrial park.
McFearin said port officials planned to explore alternatives for the Fairhaven park in the coming months, but she was not confident any new facilities could go along the shore.
“I personally think it’s going to be difficult to build any type of structure in that location,” she said.
McAuley admitted his plan was a long shot. It would likely cost more than one million dollars to build, and he would have to get other port officials on board. However, without legitimate water access for manufacturers the industrial park would likely always struggle to be a base for large-scale boat building, he said.
Building 7, vacated by Aluminum Boats Australia before the company moved in, won’t be empty for long.
McFearin said the port had a back-up tenant in wait, and the port commission should decide its leasing terms by mid-summer. The new tenant is not a boat manufacturer like ABA, but it does operate in the marine industry, she said.
For ABA, the fallout was disappointing.
Co-owner Karen Whitewood said port officials and other local residents were a great help to her company as it began planting its American foothold.
“The decision was an economic one based on the extensive costs in launching vessels from the building site,” she said in a May announcement after the plans fell through.
The Australian company arrived in Bellingham amid an air of uncertainty at the port.
ABA’s CEO Stuart Pascoe gave a presentation to port commissioners during an April 3 meeting, the same day former port executive Charlie Sheldon announced his resignation.
Company officials sat by awkwardly as Sheldon’s supporters showed up en masse to confront the commission with fiery accusations of mismanagement.
McFearin said the timing of ABA’s stateside arrival was probably not the best, but there was no indication Sheldon’s departure affected the final decision.
“They didn’t make any direct comments regarding the Charlie Sheldon issue,” she said.
The port and other regional players had worked diligently to bring ABA to the Northwest, McFearin said, and though they didn’t land the company in Bellingham, their efforts would not be wasted.
“In the end they will locate somewhere in our region, and we and our partners will have played a significant role in that,” she said.