December 17, 2021
Half a century on, Syre influence continues in Whatcom County
Matt Benoit

The halls are decked with evergreen garlands and the shoppers outfitted with protective face masks on a mellow December morning during a COVID-19 holiday season at Bellis Fair. The Bellingham mall became a reality in the 1980s after a contentious process and perseverance on the part of developer David Syre. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

 

December 17, 2021
Half a century on, Syre influence continues in Whatcom County
Matt Benoit

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If David Syre had succumbed to childhood polio in 1945, there’s a chance Whatcom County would look a little different from how it does today. 

Syre, 80, is the local developer, businessman and driving force behind some of the most high-profile county construction of the last 40 years, including Whatcom Community College, Semiahmoo Resort, and Bellis Fair mall. Most recently, he’s also the sole funding source for Cascadia Daily News, a new local digital news publication set to launch in Bellingham next month. 

Over the years, Syre’s vision as a developer evoked both applause and dismay, not only locally, but from Alaska’s Kodiak Island to the tip of South America. Now spending his time primarily as an abstract painter and philanthropist rather than a real estate baron, Syre’s focus remains in the place his life began: Whatcom County. 

Deep roots

Syre has deep local roots: a Norwegian grandfather settled south of Everson 103 years ago, creating the family farmstead near Nugent’s Corner, where Syre still lives today. A Swedish great-grandfather settled north of Everson in 1901, and owned what may have been the first windmill in northern Whatcom County. It still stands, now an art piece at the entrance to Syre’s farmhouse. 

In the fall of 1945, 4-year-old Syre was diagnosed with polio and quarantined at Bellingham’s St. Joseph Hospital. He stayed there for several months and endured numerous treatments, including being put into an iron lung. 

Syre recalled that at one point his mother was informed he might not make it. But Syre survived, and was brought back to the family farm just in time to see how badly it was damaged by a Nooksack River flood. 

For a while, Syre could only crawl; doctors felt he would never walk again. But he defied the odds, regaining his ability not only to walk, but also to run. At age 40, he ran the Vancouver Marathon in under three hours, something he said he still considers an accomplishment greater than any real estate project he’s tackled.

After graduating from Mount Baker High School, Syre briefly attended Western Washington University in accounting before transferring to Washington State University, where he obtained an agriculture degree. Returning to Whatcom County with dreams of being a family farmer, he also took a job at a Lynden bank. 

Syre changed course once again, attending Gonzaga Law School and became a practicing criminal law attorney, serving as a Spokane public defender before establishing a private practice. The latter lasted just nine months because, Syre said, he realized he was a misfit in a court of law. 

Developing a destination

Back in Whatcom County, Syre ventured into real estate development and founded his own company, Trillium, in 1974. 

One of his earliest projects was developing Snowater Resort, a large complex of privately owned condominiums just outside Glacier, in the mid-1970s. Not long after, Syre developed an ambitious 10-year plan to help distinguish the Bellingham area as a regional city with its own character, not just another stopping point between Vancouver and Seattle. 

The Laidlaw Center at Whatcom Community College was among the first buildings to appear on the still-growing campus.

In 1977, Trillium purchased 1,200 acres of the former Wilder farm on the northern outskirts of Bellingham. Half the acreage was planned as mixed-use development that would become known as Cordata. Areas for public education and recreational facilities were designated, including five acres for a new YMCA building. 

When the YMCA chose to remain in downtown Bellingham, Syre and his wife, Kay, offered 5.9 acres in 1983 to the burgeoning community college.

The college had no centralized campus at that time, using facilities throughout the county. Nor was there any intention to have one, according to Harold Heiner, the late WCC president who penned Walking the Whatcom Way,a retrospective book on the college. 

The college, however, accepted the land from Syre, obtained funding from the state and in 1987 built what’s now the Laidlaw Center. 

WCC obtained additional acreage from Trillium in 1988 and 1990, and the campus grew. Trillium has funded fully endowed scholarships for WCC through the Community College Foundation since 1991; the school named its 36,000-square-foot student center building after Syre in 2000. 

All is fair in love and malls

The development of what’s now Bellis Fair, however, was not as smooth for Syre or the community, showcasing the developer’s business style and community concern about protecting downtown businesses.

In 1981, the current mall site off the Guide Meridian was a government bulb farm and nursery. Seeing potential for a mall there, he discovered a reversionary clause in the 1916 deed from its three original owners: If the property was ever used for non-agricultural purposes, it would be given back to them. 

Syre contacted the heirs of the original owners and bought the reversionary rights to the property that summer, as well as mineral rights for thousands of acres of county land once owned by the trio. It cost him just $50,000. 

With Syre showing interest in building a mall on the site, Bellingham mayor Ken Hertz and others worried downtown business would suffer as a result. Hertz even hired a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to help block federal approval of Syre’s nursery relocation proposal.

Trillium briefly dropped its plans in 1982 when another company announced a downtown mall project, but those plans fizzled when a voter-approved election referendum banned city funding of new parking garages.

Early-day visitors to Bellis Fair enjoy a chat in the food court.

‘Keep moving’

When Skagit County’s Cascade Mall was announced, Hertz and others changed their minds about Syre’s proposal, and began promoting benefits for the county such as sales tax revenue and employment benefits. When Hertz left the mayor’s office in 1984, he joined Trillium as the company’s vice president. 

Now 84, Hertz described Syre as a visionary — an exceptional entrepreneur who tackled project after project with dedication and gusto. 

“David’s desire is to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving,” he said. “It wasn’t the money that drove him; it was the challenge.”

Tim Douglas, who succeeded Hertz as Bellingham mayor in 1984, insisted that Syre was always well-aware of his pocketbook. His visions for a project, Douglas said, didn’t always match up with what others in the community might have foreseen. Still, the former mayor conceded, Syre mostly followed through on what he set out to do. 

“A lot of the northern part of the city would never have developed were it not for his early acquisition of properties and working things through,” Douglas said. 

In 1984, Syre officially gained control of the future mall property when the federal government agreed to relocate its nursery. A California developer, however, then announced plans to build a smaller mall off Sunset Drive, leading to a February 1985 city planning commission rejection of the Bellis Fair proposal. 

But Syre struck back, announcing plans to purchase major pieces of downtown real estate and buying out two prominent businesspeople. With Syre assuring citizens that downtown would survive the new mall, Bellis Fair was given city council approval in September 1985. An Iowa contractor began construction and the mall opened in August 1988. 

Goin’ north … and south

The development of the Semiahmoo Resort on Semiahmoo Spit at the site of the former Pacific-American Fisheries salmon cannery was another example of Syre’s style. 

Trillium obtained development rights to the land after a three-way land agreement among Trillium, the Lummi Nation and Whatcom County Parks and Recreation. In the agreement, the tribe received property rights to Portage Island, while the county was allowed land on which to build what’s now Semiahmoo Park. 

An Arnold Palmer-designed golf course opened inland from the resort around 1984, and the hotel resort opened in 1987. Operating with several partners, Trillium reportedly owned about 40% of the development for Semiahmoo, then worth an estimated $250 million.

As with other malls across the country, Bellis Fair has seen once-bustling businesses move out, leaving empty storefronts — a national trend heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hertz, who stayed with Trillium from 1984 to 1995 and returned again from 1999 to 2003, helped manage large portions of land Trillium acquired in Alaska, first from the Alaska Packers’ Association and then from Georgia-Pacific.

The company grew larger in the 1990s with more land acquisitions, buying 49,000 acres of forestland from G-P for $48 million in 1991. The following two years, Trillium obtained 25,000 acres of land from Burlington Northern Railroad, spread across 18 states and two Canadian provinces. Acquisitions included land in downtown Denver and Vancouver, British Columbia, and property in the Alaskan cities of Ketchikan and Anchorage. 

In 1997, the company cashed in big, selling 65,000 of timberland to the Crown Pacific timber company for $153 million. In 2003, when Crown Pacific went bankrupt, Trillium negotiated to buy most of the company’s 51,000 acres in Whatcom County, splitting it with local tribes. 

These real estate deals made Syre a very rich person, easily among the richest in Whatcom County. Even by the time of his 2011 bankruptcy declaration, Syre would still have net assets of $100 million.

And while Trillium acquired land, they also occasionally gave back. The company set aside 98 acres in the North Fork area of the Nooksack River in a 1995 agreement with Whatcom Land Trust. In 1997, they donated 40 acres of old growth forest near the Skagit River to the Nature Conservancy. 

These philanthropic attempts at conservation, however, did little to soothe detractors of Trillium’s various Northwest projects, some of which never came to fruition. 

In 1988, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network took direct action against the company’s logging operations of southern Whidbey Island wetlands, creating several human blockades of logging equipment as a form of protest. 

In 1989, Skagit County farmers roundly rejected Syre’s proposal of Hollyhock Farms, an agricultural theme park development on several dozen acres of prime farmland near Cook Road and Interstate 5.  

Some of Syre’s biggest critics emerged from perhaps his most ambitious project. In 1996, Trillium obtained 825,000 acres of virgin timberland on the South American archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Called Rio Condor, the project was intended to be an exercise in sustainable forestry: carefully cutting swaths of hardwood lenga, milling it, and selling it for use primarily in furniture-making. 

The project resulted in significant upset among Chilean environmental groups, who protested Rio Condor in Bellingham and Seattle and at home. In October 2001, members of Shuksan Direct Action rallied in front of Trillium’s Bellingham office, asking the company to give its timberland to a proposed forest sanctuary. 

The project was also becoming very expensive. Trillium and its partners had spent $200 million by 2001 but still owed the Chilean government money for the land, which had yet to turn a profit. 

Much of the expenses, Hertz contended, came from the planning of the operation, which required significant infrastructure to be successful, including the building of roads and docks to allow movement of the felled hardwood. 

Despite mounting pressure on Trillium by Chilean environmental groups to sell or donate its timberland, Syre’s South American odyssey was ended by the demise of a financial partner much closer to home.

As a new century dawned, cracks began showing in Trillium’s finances. It would begin with some layoffs and the selling of its corporate jet, but by the time it was over, economic setbacks would cost both David Syre and Trillium tens of millions of dollars.  

Part 2 of this report, out Dec. 23, will address Syre’s descent into and recovery from bankruptcy, as well as his and others’ hopes for his new venture, Cascadia Daily News. 

— Reporting by Matt Benoit

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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