October 8, 2021
Election 2021: Candidates vie to drive the engine of Whatcom County’s economic development
Ralph Schwartz

While Port of Bellingham commissioners drive the county’s economic engine, construction equipment has sat idle for much of this year in planned developments on the city’s waterfront. Progress of plans for the site is just one among issues candidates have been discussing in advance of the election — along with explanations of what the Port commissioner job is. (Mike Sato photo © 2021)

October 8, 2021
Election 2021: Candidates vie to drive the engine of Whatcom County’s economic development
Ralph Schwartz

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With two of three Port of Bellingham seats up for election on the Nov. 2 ballot, you may wonder: Is the Port’s board of commissioners doing a good job? You might even be asking, what is it that Port commissioners do, anyway?

There is no embarrassment in asking that second question. The candidates running for Port this year — incumbents Ken Bell and Michael Shepard, and challengers Kelly Krieger and John Huntley — have found they need to explain their purpose whenever they knock on voters’ doors.

The Port of Bellingham is an engine designed to promote economic development and create jobs throughout Whatcom County. The three commissioners are the drivers of that engine. The Port owns and manages several properties with this goal in mind, including Bellingham International Airport; Bellingham Cruise Terminal for Amtrak trains, an Alaska ferry and Greyhound buses; Bellingham Shipping Terminal for cargo; Blaine Harbor; Squalicum Harbor and the still-mostly-undeveloped Waterfront District.

All this work takes money, of course. The commissioners oversee an operating budget, for day-to-day business, and a capital budget, for construction projects. These budgets are around $20 million each for 2021. Some of the Port’s expenses are covered by grants and other sources of income, but the agency also collects $7.5 million in property taxes within Whatcom County.

Outside the footprint

The commissioners also attend to sectors of the economy outside their immediate physical footprint. 

Take agriculture. Krieger, former director of Hamster Endurance Running in Bellingham, is challenging one-term incumbent Bell. She said she wants the Port to help Whatcom farmers research crops more suitable to the hotter, drier growing seasons that climate change will bring. This year’s early-summer heatwave underscored her point. 

Raspberry farmers suffered millions of dollars in losses after temperatures on their north-county fields eclipsed 100 degrees. “The Port’s mission … is to promote sustainable economic development,” Krieger said. “If we’re not helping what is currently a very big part of our economy to sustain its prosperity, we’re not doing our job.”

Bell, who owns a soil-cleanup company called Iron Creek Group, has an idea for supporting the fishing fleets docked in the Port’s harbors. He wants to bring a hatchery to Bellingham to return salmon populations to 1980s levels. He believes he can make this happen, with the support of the local tribes.

Shepard, the other incumbent, has proven in his first term that he can get things done with Lummi Nation. Shepard, who teaches anthropology at Western Washington University, played a lead role in negotiations with Lummi on what he will tell you is “an historic agreement” that enables the Port to make in-water infrastructure repairs.

This is significant because in general, the tribe has the authority to “unilaterally reject any permit that touches the water,” as Shepard put it. In fact, the Lummis had been using that authority to prevent the Port from getting work done. The new agreement gives Lummi Nation free moorage for its fishing fleet in Squalicum and Blaine harbors, for as long as the Port operates those marinas.

A mural by Matt French frames a view of construction on hold on Port property off Waypoint Park on the Bellingham waterfront. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

In the next round of negotiations, Port officials say they and the Lummis will raise the stakes and discuss new developments, not just repairs of existing structures. This could include an overwater walkway connecting Boulevard and Cornwall parks. 

The long, big hole down by the water

Where the Georgia-Pacific plant once made paper, Bellingham’s waterfront has been in the hands of Harcourt Developments since 2015. Today, it is still more or less a blank slate. In January 2021, construction appeared imminent on two condominium buildings along the Whatcom Waterway, on the northwest end of the waterfront site. As summer turned to fall, the only evidence of condo construction was an enormous empty hole in the ground.

Ask the two incumbent Port commissioners up for election this year about the holdup, and the best answer they can give is that Harcourt has been dragging its feet. As Shepard put it, “We haven’t seen an ability to meet our timelines.”

Port officials had the expectation that a major international developer would have deeper pockets than anyone local and could work quickly to get multiple projects done at the same time. An impressive project presentation by Harcourt to the commission at the end of 2020 was applauded but its promises did not materialize. (Read more: “The future arrives on the Bellingham Bay waterfront,” Salish Current, Jan. 26, 2021.)

“All of that has meant a challenging relationship,” Shepard said. 

Bell acknowledged that some of the delays may not have been Harcourt’s fault. The city had been slow to put in roads and approve permits. Then, pretty much everything in the world came to a halt in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “They had someone to blame prior to this year, but this year they had nobody to blame,” Bell said.

By mid-year, the port held Harcourt accountable for its lack of performance. Harcourt and the Port recently signed a revised contract that reduces Harcourt’s development footprint from 18.8 acres to 7.7 acres. If the developer has those first two condominium buildings ready for occupancy within two years, it gains the right to develop another 3.3 acres off the intersection of Bay and Chestnut streets.

New vision

The acreage ceded by Harcourt is now in the Port’s hands, and includes the Board Mill Building along the new Laurel Street. Shepard said the “leading vision” for that building is a hotel and 10,000-square-foot conference center, which would be much larger than any other conference space in Bellingham and could attract a new level of business. Shepard and Bell said they are open to other suggestions for the Board Mill Building, and both hope to see local bids on repurposing the historic red brick structure. 

Krieger, Bell’s challenger in the election, said a conference center makes sense for the Board Mill Building. She supports projects that would boost the county’s tourism industry.

Huntley, owner of Mills Electric in Bellingham and the challenger for Shepard’s seat, is skeptical of the plan to renovate the building rather than tearing it down and building new. “I would find it hard to believe that a local contractor would want to invest as much to refurbish that building as it will take,” he said.

Affordable housing and a food hub

While much of the downtown waterfront’s future remains unknown, one proposal appears to be on solid ground. Construction could begin in 2023 if financing comes through at Laurel Street and Cornwall Avenue on The Millworks, which will combine more than 70 affordable housing units, a food campus to support farmers and food businesses, and an early learning center. (Read more: “Food hub plus’ part of ambitious collaboration to meet housing and food needs,” Salish Current, Oct. 1, 2021)

Shepard said he was grateful that Port staff took his suggestion to incorporate affordable housing in the project. “We’re hearing from our top employers in the county that the biggest limitations to attracting and retaining a workforce is housing and childcare,” Shepard said. 

Huntley, in contrast to his opponent, doesn’t believe affordable housing should be part of the waterfront plan. “What I envision would be high-end condos, manufacturing, just a variety of different hotels with conference space, and a restaurant or two, or something like that,” Huntley said in an interview. “But I don’t want it to be used for low-income housing. I think that would be ridiculous. I fully believe we need low-income housing, but not in that high-end facility.”

Krieger said the community has already spoken on what waterfront development should prioritize: environmental sustainability and access for all, not just high-end condo owners. At a City Club candidate forum in August, Krieger said, “I would love to see some local developers get in there and make something that Bellingham can really be proud of.”

Bell said he envisions the waterfront as a lively and diverse commercial hub. The temporary container village that’s there now is just a glimmer of how a bustling waterfront will be good for Bellingham’s economy. “I want the most people to access the waterfront that we can possibly fit,” Bell said in an interview. 

By “access,” Bell means residences and businesses, not just parks. “When you add marine activity you bring people, when you provide jobs in loading and unloading ships you bring people,” Bell said. “When you support the fishing industry you bring people. All of these activities provide increased activity on our waterfront.” 

Teachers as well students in rural areas faced the challenge of finding viable internet connections as COVID-19 nixed in-person classes last year; among them, Mount Baker area resident Juliette Machado taught her Whatcom Community College dance class online. (Courtesy photo)

As for Shepard, he qualified his own vision for the waterfront by saying he wants it “to reflect the needs and values of our community … we need the waterfront to be an active part of our downtown that provides recreational, employment, and housing opportunities for everyone.”

Huntley said the Port should develop the waterfront as a business hub. “I would love to see businesses come in that are going to offer family-wage jobs,” he said. “I also want to make sure we use the port as a port facility … and maintain that dock, and do import-export business out of there.”

Broadband buildout

The Port’s attention, of course, is focused not only on Bellingham’s waterfront but also Whatcom County’s deep interior, too. 

Krieger said the Port has moved too slowly to build a broadband network that would provide reliable internet service in rural parts of the county. The problem of poor service or no service in some areas suddenly became a pressing issue after the COVID-19 pandemic forced students and some businesses to work remotely. For some students whose homes lacked internet access, “attending class” meant sitting in parked buses or cars in front of facilities such as libraries that provided hotspots. (Read more: “Internet connectivity has improved in Whatcom County, but many gaps remain,” Salish Current, Feb. 25, 2021)

“We like to think that the pandemic is what caused this problem,” Krieger said Oct. 1, during a League of Women Voters forum on Zoom. “This problem was here way before the pandemic. You just have to ask anyone who’s lived in our foothills regions, as I have, (to learn) that the problem has been there all along.”

Mere access isn’t Krieger’s only concern when it comes to broadband. “I talk to voters in our county and our city who are in Comcast’s service zone but they can’t afford the service,” Krieger said at the Oct. 1 forum. Providing internet service as a public utility is a matter of equity, she said. She noted that the city of Anacortes has proven that lower-cost public internet can work. 

Bell agreed countywide broadband should have happened sooner, but he asserted in an interview that the Port was actually among the first to see the need and lobby the state Legislature to fund broadband buildout. “We were the only ones doing it” in 2018 and 2019, Bell said. “Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly everybody sees the need. People who came in in 2020 became critical of the Port’s effort, when we were the only ones leading the charge.” 

Earlier this year, Port officials said they had secured about $2 million for the first construction phase in what was going to be 113 miles of broadband cable, strung on poles and buried in trenches across the county. The full cost of the three-phase buildout plan was estimated at $6.8 million. 

Bell said $6.8 million was “the tip of the iceberg” when you’re talking about the full cost of firing up high-speed internet in every home and business in the county — a task as monumental and historic as the effort over the past 100-plus years to make electricity universally available. “We’re looking at north of $50 million” in total cost, Bell said. “What we want to do is fill the void now and have other agencies pick up the ball.”

Public or private?

Bell and Krieger both anticipate the Whatcom Public Utility District will step up eventually to take the lead role in county internet. While Krieger envisions internet as a public service, perhaps managed by the PUD, Bell says internet in the county should remain private.

The Port’s role, Bell said, should be to put infrastructure in place that will attract private companies to provide internet service. Affordability would come with competition, Bell said, while allowing that the Port may need to create a mechanism that mandates private carriers to serve more remote and less lucrative areas. “Our investment will be in the tens of millions of dollars,” Bell said. “The private sector should and will invest.”

For his part, Huntley, who is challenging Shepard, said he supports the Port’s broadband project and only wants to see it progress more quickly. “Things change rapidly,” Huntley said. “We just have to take in whatever opportunities there are to expand that broadband.”

Things are indeed changing rapidly. Thanks to the pandemic, federal agencies and the state government are more willing than ever to fund broadband projects. This year, the state legislature allocated $411 million for expanding broadband infrastructure, compared to less than $30 million in some previous budgets. 

With all the new money available, Shepard said he is confident the Port can finish all phases of its planned countywide buildout. But the Port isn’t the only agency with a hand in this effort. The PUD is a major player, too, and Shepard wanted to ensure the two agencies weren’t stepping on each other’s toes. To that end, Shepard said he requested the formation of a joint Port-PUD committee that he co-chairs with PUD commissioner Christine Grant. “We’re trying to make sure we’re coordinating that (broadband project) and ensuring it happens as quickly as possible,” Shepard said.

Three versus five: efficiency versus representation?

The issue of whether the port commission districts should be expanded to five instead of remaining at three has been to the ballot in 2012, losing narrowly 49.19% to 50.81%. The issue of a ballot measure was raised at a 2020 commission meeting but did not move to the ballot. (Read more: “No Whatcom vote this November on increase in Port commission members,” Salish Current, July 24, 2020)

Among the candidates, Shepard and Krieger would like to see five commissioners. More commissioners could bring more diversity to the group, Shepard said; “not only from people who have different identities but also from industry stakeholders,” including two groups currently unrepresented on the board: farmers and tribal members.

“I am a huge proponent of five,” Krieger said. The commission’s workload would be shared among more people, and giving commissioners more time to gather and consider ideas from constituents. She and Shepard agreed a benefit would be gained from two commissioners working together outside of scheduled public meetings. As it is now, with three commissioners, two of them aren’t allowed to communicate at all in private, as that constitutes a quorum and thus a public meeting.

Five commissioners would indeed enable a minority of two to work together privately, and Bell sees that as a threat, not an opportunity. Voting alliances could be forged in secret, he said. “The three-commissioner format is the most transparent because we can’t talk outside of the public view,” Bell said. “I worry about two commissioners getting together and coming to an agreement outside of the port commission and outside of the public view.” 

Bell and Huntley both favor maintaining the status quo. “I just personally believe that more people in the pot makes it more difficult for decision making,” Huntley said.

Reported by Ralph Schwartz

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