Much more than a marina: Port of Bellingham drives economic recovery and growth - Salish Current

Construction is underway in earnest for a mixed-use project expected to be completed in 2022 on Port of Bellingham property on the downtown Bellingham waterfront. In the background, the renovated Granary Building seen through the art-covered fence near Waypoint Park is already occupied by business tenants.

photo: Kimberly Cauvel © 2020


When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Michael Shepard’s routine changed. He began teaching his Western Washington University classes in video conferences and coaching his two young children through their own version of online school.

His responsibilities as president of the Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioners changed, too, to focus on keeping local businesses afloat through the economic downturn. 

The Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioners will adopt its 2021 budget on Nov. 17 — scroll down for details.

Shepard, a researcher with a background in environmental studies, anthropology and cultural sustainability, was elected to the port commission in 2017. Fellow commissioner Ken Bell, owner of a recycling business, was also elected in 2017. They joined commissioner Bobby Briscoe, a fourth-generation fisherman, who has served since 2012.

“Our day-to-day obligations and opportunities changed dramatically because of the pandemic,” Shepard said. “We’ve been really helping to deliver economic recovery dollars to small businesses in our community … to bring state resources and federal resources in to help them get through this.”

The mission of the Port of Bellingham goes beyond aviation, maritime and marina concerns. As a lead agency for economic development in the county, the Port’s responsibility is to protect longtime facets of the economy, such as farmland, while also encouraging innovation, such as renewable energy, environmentally friendly product development, broadband networks and technology training, Shepard said.

The coronavirus-prompted transitions came little more than halfway through his first four-year term on the port commission. Shepard said he is proud of strides made by the Port thus far and envisions a stronger, more sustainable economic future for Whatcom County beyond pandemic recovery. 

Positioned for recovery — and growth

“I think our regional economy is well positioned to have a successful recovery and growth from this pandemic,” Shepard said. “We have wonderful farmland and a robust agricultural community … and we’ve got some really important manufacturers in our community — whether those are our refineries or our solar panel manufacturers — that employ people to do good work here. Those businesses are going to be well primed for expansion and innovation when this pandemic is over.”

Going forward, his priorities are thinking not only about what makes sense economically, but also what makes sense to create a sustainable economy that brings together economic priorities with needs for balancing environmental sustainability. “Those two can come together to create an economy that is both sustainable for the people and the environment here,” Shepard said. 

The Port took several steps in that direction before the pandemic hit. It forged a plan to move its properties to 100% green power in 2021, helped Silfab Solar secure a grant to expand its local operation and began penning more plans to address climate change at the local level.

“We’re working to address climate emissions through increased capacity for renewable energy, efficiency, and we’re developing a climate action plan,” Shepard said. “We are one of a few and growing number of ports in Washington engaging in climate action plans.”

The Port has worked at building relationships between diverse groups including work with area tribes that led to a new partnership last year.

“We reached an agreement with [the] Lummi [Nation] that recognized past loss in fishing harvest (the tribe endured) and provided the fishing fleet free moorage in Squalicum Harbor in perpetuity, in exchange for approval of port maintenance for in-water structures,” Shepard said. 

Mission: build the economy

The Port was voter-created in 1920 to promote economic development, invest in supporting infrastructure and manage public properties in Whatcom County. The Board of Commissioners is a nonpartisan, three-person elected body that oversees port operations. 

A century after the Port’s founding and in the midst of a pandemic, Shepard said it’s critical the Port maintain its role as a business support system and economic development catalyst despite taking its own financial hits. Revenue through the Bellingham International Airport took a nosedive and many tenants on port property have been unable to cover rents. 

“We’ve been trying to really keep our spending and investing on projects moving forward as best as we can, to keep building our economy up for when the pandemic is over. It will end, and we want our economy to be ready to go,” he said. 

Not all pre-coronavirus progress has been lost, either. Along the Bellingham waterfront, for instance, foundations continue to be laid for long-awaited development.

“We have seen the start of the first new construction at the waterfront in anyone’s lifetime here, and that will be the site of three waterfront mixed residential buildings … with ground-floor retail or commercial use,” Shepard said. 

Port commissioner Michael Shepard pauses near the landmark Acid Ball sculpture at Waypoint Park, one of the port’s first renovations on the downtown Bellingham waterfront. (Kimberly Cauvel photo © 2020) 

Heavy machinery is currently moving dirt and old wooden pilings in a large pit where those buildings will be erected. Permits are in hand and construction is expected to be complete in 2022. 

After the Georgia-Pacific Corporation ground its pulp and paper plant operations to a stop at the turn of the century, the Port took ownership of 137 acres in 2005. Despite a vision for a vibrant waterfront hub for business and housing, the vast expanse of waterfront real estate stood unused for years. 

That began to change with the opening of Bellingham’s Waypoint Park — home of Georgia-Pacific’s remnant “Acid Ball” artwork — in 2018, followed by the restored Granary Building and a new bicycle pump track in 2019. 

“We decided we would start building what we can with the resources we have now,” Shepard said. “We took a site that had zero people on it for decades and it now has people walking and biking and picnicking with their families.” 

While the work on the waterfront began before Shepard, Bell or Briscoe joined the commission, there is still much to do.

“It’s not happening as fast as anyone would like, but we’re trying to make sure it gets done well and we create something that is going to be useful and supports our regional economy,” Shepard said.

Money for shipping and CARES

Plans are taking shape for another project a few miles away along the waterfront, too, with the Port in October securing a $6.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant for upgrades to the Bellingham Shipping Terminal. 

“The grant funding will allow us to modernize our shipping terminal to accommodate a much wider range of vessels and cargoes, and offer a viable shipping alternative to the crowded Canadian ports just north of Whatcom County,” port executive director Rob Fix said in a news release. “Increasing trade and commerce at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal will create working-waterfront, family-wage jobs and support state-wide COVID-19 related economic recovery efforts.”

Beyond the waterfront, the Port has helped funnel state and federal funding, particularly through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, to more than 400 small businesses this year. It has also helped invest government funding in pandemic support programs, such as reimbursing a local cruise company for providing a no-charge ferry service between Bellingham and the community of Point Roberts, where residents became landlocked by the closure of the Canadian border. 

“In the next year we have to make sure that our county continues to successfully deal with the pandemic and that we emerge well from it, recovering from the losses our local businesses have seen and hardships our community has endured,” Shepard said.

2021 proposed budget vote Nov. 17

The Port of Bellingham’s operating budget for 2021 is proposed at $21.7 million and operating expenses at $19.1 million, taking into account lower aviation revenue due to COVID-19.

The Port anticipates a positive cash flow in 2021 of about $1.5 million due to fewer major capital projects and property sales at the waterfront.

At the Bellingham waterfront site, expenses that include environmental cleanup are budgeted at over $4.9 million but offset by $3.3 million in grants and reimbursements. There is also $2.6 million in capital projects budgeted. The Port anticipates revenues of $1.5 million from the site, an increase of 30% over 2020.

The Port budgets for what it calls Public Priorities programs, “activities for the benefit of the community.” These include environmental activities, economic development, community connections and public infrastructure. In 2021 the Port anticipates operating expenses of $3.1 million on economic development, public access to port facilities, management of public records, and public infrastructure. Environmental cleanup outside the Bellingham Waterfront site is budgeted at $1.6 million, net grants and reimbursements. Debt service for Public Priorities is $1.2 million. Capital expenses will total $4.6 million but offset by $350,000 in grants.

Public Priorities — supported by property taxes — in 2021 is budgeted to generate revenues of $303,000.

The public can submit written comment on the Port of Bellingham’s 2021 Preliminary Strategic Budget until 5 p.m. Nov. 16.  The Board of Commissioners will hear presentations and hold an online public hearing on the budget on Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. at Harbor Center Room via Zoom, and is scheduled to formally adopt the budget at its Nov. 17 meeting.

— Reported by Kimberly Cauvel


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