A complex housing and food resources proposal for the Bellingham waterfront aims to address issues that had been simmering before the COVID-19 pandemic and came to a boil in 2020.
Food and housing insecurity both increased as jobs evaporated last year. And for many families and commercial cooks, even if income wasn’t cut, finding local sources for meat, dairy and produce moved from a locavore lifestyle choice to a necessity. Supply chain disruptions cleared shelves in supermarkets, sending many shoppers out to local farms.
Alluvial Farms on Goodwin Road near Everson, for example, reported that their orders for pasture-raised pork shares nearly tripled in from 2019 to 2020, from 44 to 126, before trending downward again this year. People who signed up in 2020 “commented on images of large-scale pork production which were in the news when COVID shut down pork processing plants,” wrote co-owner Katie Pencke in an email. “Other than that we also surmised that cooking more at home and supporting local farmers became increasing priorities.”
Many Northwest Washington producers, for their part, risked having to discard crops and dairy products when restaurants and schools closed due to COVID. While some saw sharp increases in sales via CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) contracts for home delivery of produce boxes, others had been counting on their relationships with restaurants and other commercial buyers.
The crisis spotlighted gaps in food supply. It also spurred flexibility on the part of local food organizations. The Bellingham Food Bank was no longer able to safely collect and distribute fresh produce at its facility on Ellis Street. And with schools closed, the Common Threads Farm nonprofit, which coordinates school gardens and other community food education in Whatcom County, could not operate as usual. The Bellingham School District, which had opened a new central kitchen in 2018 to facilitate more fresh cooked meals and use of local produce, had no cafeteria breakfasts and lunches to supply.
Pivoting quickly, the Food Bank used grant money to purchase produce from local growers. The school district provided the certified kitchen and freezer space, along with expertise in large-batch cooking, and AmeriCorps volunteers from Common Threads got to work making soups, stews and sauces that went into the district freezers. This Food to Freezer project created and stored 37,000 quarts of varied products, to be used by the school district and the food bank in its feeding programs in the succeeding months.
‘Food campus’ to the foreground
Already in planning in the background was a project to foster more of these linkages and build new ones. On Sept. 9, a long-discussed “food campus” project came a step closer to fruition along with a plan for affordable housing. Port of Bellingham commissioners voted unanimously to give The Millworks, a development group under the umbrella of the Whatcom Community Foundation (WCF), an option to buy 3.3 acres of the Georgia Pacific redevelopment site at the intersection of Laurel and Cornwall streets. Along with Mercy Housing Northwest, which intends to build a 70-unit affordable housing complex, Millworks has until Dec. 31, 2022, to raise the $2 million purchase price.
The project will pair housing and family support services with a food campus: a collaborative combination of commercial kitchens, food truck resources, education and training, a grocery store and more, designed to showcase and support the region’s food resources.
At an estimated $50 million, it is an ambitious collaboration. “There are a lot of moving parts,” said Mauri Ingram, WCF President and CEO. Ingram said the complexity of the project presents both challenges and opportunities in reaching donors and investors. It adds to the challenges of raising funds but also opens up a variety of avenues for support.
The food campus is an umbrella concept — Ingram has called it a “food hub plus” — that could combine the elements of a food hub like the Puget Sound Food Hub (PSFH) in Burlington, with opportunities for training and education, and a highly visible showcase for Northwest Washington’s agricultural and marine bounty.
In a March 6, 2020, article in the Western Front Ingram defined a food campus as a place where components of the local food system can come together. She said farmers, along with other producers, buyers and food educators all would benefit from easier communication and collaboration with each other, and with access to office and production space.
Priority in Skagit
The value of a food hub for local farms and fishers is demonstrated by the PSFH, which started under the auspices of the Northwest Business Agricultural Center in Mount Vernon and is now a farmer-owned cooperative. More than 50 producers in seven Northwest Washington counties use it to market their produce, meat, dairy and seafood, allowing commercial buyers to do one-stop shopping with an aggregated supply of foodstuffs from nearby family farms, and farmers to maintain their independent identities and reputations.
Cheryl Thornton, co-founder and market development coordinator for Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, said the Puget Sound hub “has been a real boon in terms of access to local food.” Cloud Mountain is both a seller through the hub and its northernmost collection point.
The Port of Skagit County has a head start in prioritizing agricultural contributions and visibility. It built a 6,000-square-foot kitchen commercial kitchen on its property near the Skagit Airport in 2011.
Home of the nationally known Bread Lab and King Arthur Baking School, the kitchen provided a central focus for several enterprises promoting local crops — including Cairnspring Mills and Skagit Valley Malting. It will soon be the new home of Chuckanut Brewery, which is closing its Holly Street location in this October and expanding operations at its South Nut Taproom on Airport Drive in Burlington.
Another 123 acres off Peterson Road on Bayview Ridge, purchased by the Port in 2018, awaits a developer for value-added agriculture initiatives.
The idea has been in the works in Bellingham since 2013. Bellingham voters supported school bond issues in 2010 and again in 2018, with some of the money going to build a central kitchen. WCF donated an additional $1 million to the project, and has worked with the district on food initiatives since then.
WCF and Mercy Housing Northwest each have begun work on their side of the funding. It’s a big job, with a combined estimated cost of $50 million, about $25 million each. The foundation has engaged RMC Architects of Bellingham, which also designed the new Samish Commons housing project at the site of the old Aloha Motel, as the building architect. MIG, an international firm with offices in Seattle, is the landscape architect.
Mercy Housing Northwest runs multiple properties in Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Sterling Meadows and Eleanor Apartments in Bellingham and Olympic Apartments in Mount Vernon
Waterfront — and financial — challenges
Both projects are complicated by the waterfront location, which is particularly vulnerable both to earthquake damage and to rising sea levels from climate change; “sad but true,” said Ingram, and “all being factored into the planning and design.”
Other hurdles are financial. The housing proposal, which is a known quantity in funding circles, faces the long wait times, complex bureaucracy and strong competition common to federally funded projects.
The food campus is a less familiar concept, with a potential tangle of public, private, profit and nonprofit interests. Ingram said the multiplicity of interests makes it more complex, but also opens up a variety of avenues to approach donors and philanthropic foundations for support.
Ingram expects that downtown Bellingham’s designation as an Opportunity Zone under the federal 2017 tax reform legislation will help attract investment at the level needed for an ambitious project. This allows investors get some capital gains relief when investing within the zone.
As the fundraising and investment search continues, the specifics of the campus and its users and tenants may change. Ingram asks proponents to “hold loosely” to the concept rather than fixating early on specific programs and enterprises there. For example, Sustainable Connections, which has been a planning partner since the project’s inception is “central, but what that means on the campus is to be determined,” she said.
Seeing the possibilities
Local food activists and producers are already thinking of possibilities for involvement.
Max Morange, the emerging projects coordinator for the Bellingham Food Bank, pointed out that the Farm to Freezer project was only possible because the Bellingham School District kitchen had time and space available due to pandemic school closures. The food campus proposal “represents an asset that could make things like produce processing and value-added production of local soups a reality in the coming years.”
Katherine Kehrli, associate dean of the Seattle Culinary Academy, founded and coordinates the Community Loaves project, which uses hundreds of volunteer bakers to donate thousands of high-protein sandwich loaves per month to food banks from Bellingham to Portland to Idaho.
Most of the flour, which is on target to total 80,000 pounds over the next year, comes from Fairhaven and Cairnspring mills in Skagit County. She is excited by the potential of a large community kitchen in this area. “I can’t help but salivate at the thought of an opportunity to gather Community Loaves bakers under one roof to create even larger delicious bread donations for our food pantries.”
Besides the lure of kitchens and freezers, food activists like Laura Plaut, founder and director of Common Threads, looks forward to more chances for informal collaboration. “It would be fantastic to be able to do value-added food in a commercial kitchen,” she said, and there is also the value of having people in like-minded organizations likely “to bump into each other in the hallway.”
Plaut also sees a role for the campus in making best use of one of Common Threads’s newest acquisitions, a food truck. Purchased through a grant from the State Office of Public Instruction, its main purpose is to bring healthy meals to children in more remote parts of Whatcom County in the summer, when school lunches may not be available or accessible. During the school year, Plaut imagines using the food campus resources to create teams of young cooks and entrepreneurs who could use the truck to learn business skills.
In her own long view, Ingram hopes that “this fusion of community and economic development,” which will be the foundation’s biggest and most complex endeavor to date, will be “a once in a lifetime opportunity for a community” to center its aspirations and assets. She said she believes the scope and potential of the project could reach into the past as well as the future, connecting the waterfront to identities and cultures that long predate the tenure of Georgia Pacific and of Bellingham itself — a reminder that local edible bounty has shaped the culture and economy of this area for thousands of years.
— Reported by Lane Morgan
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