Keep our waterfronts working - Salish Current

Local jobs and new economic opportunities at the Port of Bellingham are intersecting with established and growing neighborhoods, calling for thoughtful conversations, not changes to city or county regulations, to find solutions, say members of a local coalition. (Salish Current photo)

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Our region is growing. As we do, there are times when local jobs and new economic opportunities intersect with our growing neighborhoods, and detailed, thoughtful conversations must be had. A controversial industrial activity is going on at the Port of Bellingham’s shipping terminal facility at the foot of Cornwall Avenue. We applaud the Port and ABC Recyclers for being sensitive to the concerns of the community in the Sehome Hill and South Hill neighborhoods. We are hopeful those concerns are mitigated in some fashion. 

The Coalition, our 130+ member businesses, organizations and individuals in it, do not approve of city and county councils making broad changes to permitting, zoning or city ordinances as a solution. These issues are specific, nuanced and deserve to be solved as such. Broad and lasting change to the ability of trades businesses to operate in the county will have broad and lasting negative impacts on the affordability, diversity and economic vitality of our region.

Our waterfronts and shorelines in Whatcom County are a precious and important resource for all who live and work in our region. A study conducted in 2016 found there are over 6,000 direct and indirect jobs in the county’s maritime sector, which has grown since then. This number rivals the number of jobs involved in the agriculture, health care and the Cherry Point industrial complex. Our waterfronts in Blaine and Bellingham involve areas that allow mixed-use (open to many activities) zoning as well as areas zoned to protect marine trades. These two zoning laws ensure that our public has continued access to our waterfront, as well as preserving areas that are available for water-reliant businesses.

The waterfront features businesses that build, repair and service our boats; steward, harvest and process our seafood products; transport our goods; provide tours and recreation; and more. These businesses, and the women and men who earn living wages at them, allow our middle class in Bellingham to support other small and regional businesses. The economic ripple of living wages on our waterfronts ensures the economic vitality of our region and allows Whatcom County to remain an economically diverse place necessary for healthy communities.

Our Bellingham community is growing, and it is necessary to continually make the choice of either allowing our industries to coexist with us, or gentrify the waterfront in ways other cities in Western Washington have. Bellingham does have a large area zoned mixed-use under development in the waterfront district, with condominiums, pump tracks, restaurants, a low-income housing building, public access and a proposed hotel. This mixed-use zone adds vitality to the waterfront, as do the maritime activities. The balance and compatibility of mixed-use and marine trades zoning is essential to the continued health of our communities. 

Waterfronts the world over are dealing with these issues. We value public access, as well as the areas where skilled women and men can continue to build, repair, fit our commercial and recreational vessels; harvest and process our seafood; provide services; and more. Maintaining the vitality and diversity of our authentic waterfront businesses along with ensuring public access is what distinguishes Whatcom’s waterfronts from those who have ousted working endeavors in favor of condominium creep and gentrification. We can be proud of this hard-fought balance. The skilled men and women who keep our waterfronts working have the necessary infrastructure to continue this important work.

The challenge of locating working endeavors near residential dwellings is something we must all work together to solve rather than something we undermine through broad solutions to acute problems. Applying citywide and portwide solutions to individual problems will lead to the loss of that vitality and diversity. Once the maritime economy and trades are diminished, they are more easily pushed aside in the future. The final result is over-gentrification, sharp rises in cost of living, with decreases in the quality of life for those not fortunate enough to live in luxury. 

We have seen this effect in other cities in our region. We believe that finding specific and intentional solutions to our growing economy and community is essential to preserving the diversity and economic vitality of our working waterfronts. That preservation is worth the hard work, and as we enjoy our local seafood, small businesses, independent owners and operators along with our unique community spaces, festivals and events, we hope you’ll consider how all of these unique characteristics of Whatcom are only possible with a working waterfront that is integrated and part of our downtown. We hope that the community and stakeholders solve these problems without broad and drastic actions that take away from our vibrant waterfronts, or put them in danger of the creeping gentrification that would do permanent damage to the affordability and quality of life that Whatcom County enjoys. 

— Contributed by Dan Tucker for The Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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